Overall, traffic deaths in 2018 were down from 2017, when 313 people were killed, and an improvement after four years of the numbers trending upward.
Still, the rise in pedestrian deaths continues to baffle officials. According to the data, 92 pedestrians were killed in 2018, up from 77 a year earlier.
“Certainly the numbers are not going in the right direction,” said Jon Schermann, a transportation planner with the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, which sets highway safety targets each year. “Everyone’s concerned about what’s going on.”
The Washington region mirrors a national trend. More than 37,000 people were killed in traffic crashes in the United States in 2017, according to the most recent data available, and nearly 20 percent were pedestrians or bicyclists. The proportion of pedestrians and bicyclists killed jumped 5 percent in a decade, to 19 percent, according to a 2018 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“We are killing more people walking,” said Emiko Atherton, the author of a study on pedestrian deaths that was released last month by the group Smart Growth America. “It is happening everywhere. It shouldn’t be happening here.”
The problem, Atherton and other safety advocates say, is that street design isn’t keeping up with the growth and shifts in the way people get around. Many arterials are made for higher speeds. City streets are designed to accommodate drivers, not the growing number of bicyclists and pedestrians sharing the roads with motor vehicles. In the suburbs, major streets are often missing sidewalks and crosswalks.
Still, most crashes are the result of human error, transportation and law enforcement officials say, citing speeding, and aggressive, distracted and impaired driving as the primary causes.
Washington region's toll
On Dec. 19, a mother and daughter visiting Washington were crossing a busy downtown street when a tour bus making a left turn struck and killed them. The driver was using a cellphone, according to court documents. Police later charged him with involuntary manslaughter.
Those killed on the region’s roads last year were as young as 1 year old and as old as 93. They were of all races and from many different walks of life.
Nearly 1 in 3 traffic deaths in the region occurred in Prince George’s County, Md., where 92 people died in crashes. Even though the county led the region in fatalities, the number was down by seven from 2017. Those deaths included 26 pedestrians, one bicyclist and 11 people on motorcycles, according to data from the Maryland State Police. Neighboring Montgomery County recorded 32 traffic deaths — one fewer than in 2017, including one bicyclist and 15 pedestrians.
And the District logged 36 traffic deaths in 2018, up from 31 in 2017, according to city and federal crash data. Half the victims were on foot or two wheels.
Across the Potomac River in Virginia, 44 people were killed in crashes in Fairfax County, up from 34 in 2017. Among them, 16 pedestrians, up from nine in 2017. Prince William County had 24 traffic fatalities in 2018, up by two from 2017, and the number of pedestrians killed in the county doubled to six, according to state data. Loudoun County saw a significant drop in fatalities, down to 11 in 2018 from 21 in 2017.
In Arlington County, deaths last year fell by three, to two — including one pedestrian, and the city of Alexandria’s tally rose to five, including three pedestrians, up from four road fatalities in 2017.
And then there are the thousands who are injured and the families that are left broken.
“You don’t hear about the long hours in the hospital, the people who require metal plates and screws in their spine and pelvis, the brain injuries, the people who go through physical rehab for weeks, months and even years,” said Helaina Roisman, injury prevention coordinator at George Washington University Hospital, which each year treats about 600 people who are seriously injured in traffic crashes.
“Unless you personally experienced it, or a loved one or a friend, you really don’t see this or think about it or understand the impact,” she said.
What can be done?
In the seven months since Malik Habib, 19, was killed while riding a bicycle at Third and H streets NE in the District, his mother and brother have joined rallies, memorials for other victims and testified before the D.C. Council to call for safer streets. They regularly visit the site where Habib was killed, taking care of a white bicycle placed there in his honor and a sign that says “a cyclist was killed here.”
Similar memorials were erected at three other District locations last year where cyclists died in crashes.
It was just after 9 p.m. on a Saturday, and Habib and his brother, Cyrus, 23, were on their way to the apartment they shared off H Street NE. They were finishing up a round of food deliveries, their side job, when Habib’s wheel got stuck in the streetcar tracks and he fell into the path of a charter bus.
“There is nothing in the world that will make me feel better,” said his mother, Laura Montiel, wearing a Donate Life bracelet. Six people received organs from Habib.
“He had big dreams. For it to fall so flat and so short at 19 years old,” Montiel said. “It is so hard for me to even think that I will never have that first beer purchase for him. Those milestones you think about. He had a life and a future and for him to come to D.C. and literally be killed by this city.”
The 2018 crash fatality data is preliminary and was compiled from local and state police agencies. No one agency collects traffic statistics for the region in real time, a circumstance that advocates and transportation officials say is an impediment to assessing the severity of the problem and developing a regional strategy.
Transportation and law enforcement agencies have embraced strategies such as a program known as“Vision Zero” to push for safer roads through education, changes in street design and better enforcement. As part of that program, the District is reducing speed limits in heavy pedestrian zones, increasing fines for traffic violators and restricting right turns on red lights at certain intersections.
Other jurisdictions, including Montgomery County and the city of Alexandria, have similar programs establishing greater protections for pedestrians. And the region through the Transportation Planning Board has set highway safety goals required by the federal government, though it has not met them.
“We are absolutely as a region failing to achieve our goals,” D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) said at a recent TPB meeting. “Our goals are fairly meaningless unless we have the policies and the initiatives to achieve said goals,” Allen said. “We should try to hold ourselves and hold each other accountable for actually putting in place the types of things that will actually reduce these fatalities.”
Allen called on transportation agencies to report to the regional board periodically on the projects, programs and policies they are implementing to achieve their goals. But transportation officials say drivers and other road users also have a duty to foster safer travel environments.
“It’s a problem that can’t be solved by any one organization or person or group. We all need to be thinking more about this,” said Schermann, the official from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Safety activists argue that the answers are clear and include lower speed limits, separate spaces for cars, bicycles and pedestrians, and reducing car usage through greater investment in public transportation.
“We have the tools to make safer streets. We are choosing not to use them,” said Atherton, the Smart Growth America author. “We really need our mayors and county executives and we need our leaders to stand up and say, ‘We are going to do something.’ No one should die while they’re trying to get to work, whether they are in the car, on foot, or on their bike or on transit.”