The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Traffic deaths continue to soar despite cities’ pledges to get them to ‘Zero’

People gather at a memorial for two small children who were killed in a recent car accident as hundreds of residents, children, activists and politicians attend a March for Safe Streets on March 12, 2018 in Brooklyn. A new report by the Governors Highway Safety Association estimates the number of pedestrian deaths last year was 6,000 nationwide, a 33-year high. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser stood in the heart of Union Station on Feb. 20, 2015, and promised to lead the nation’s capital into an era free of traffic fatalities.

“We are taking our first step toward realizing a ‘Vision Zero’ where no lives are lost on our streets or at our intersections,” said a newly elected Bowser, setting a goal of zero road deaths by 2024.

Instead, the number of traffic fatalities has steadily increased since then, frustrating city officials and advocates, and seemingly putting the goal further from reach.

The District is not alone. Data recently released by the Governors Highway Safety Association shows that after decades of improvement, the number of victims on the nation’s roads is rising across the country — especially among pedestrians.

Traffic fatalities had been declining significantly since the 1970s as a result of safer vehicles, increased enforcement of laws on drunken and impaired driving, and a greater use of seat belts.

The trend is a particular setback for cities such as the District and Los Angeles that in recent years have pledged a “Vision Zero” approach to reduce fatalities and serious injuries, and are instead seeing their numbers rise.

“We don’t want this to be a trend,” said Sam Zimbabwe, a top District Department of Transportation official. “We’ve got real concerns that to get to zero we need to drive this number down.”

In Washington, where Vision Zero is one of the mayor’s signature initiatives, there were 30 traffic fatalities last year, up from 28 in 2016 and 26 in 2015. Of those killed on D.C. streets last year, 11, or nearly 40 percent, were pedestrians.

In 2015, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) rolled out the Vision Zero program to eliminate fatalities and serious injuries to pedestrians, bikers and drivers. (Video: D.C. Mayor's Office)

Los Angeles, which adopted Vision Zero two years ago, fell short of its goal of reducing traffic deaths 20 percent by 2017. The 3 percent reduction the city experienced wasn’t viewed as much of a success because the share of pedestrian victims nearly doubled from 2015.

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Even in New York, where Vision Zero has been successful by some measures, several recent fatal incidents involving children as young as 1 have ignited protests and demands for safer street design and other pedestrian protections.

“The news nationally is not good,” said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which issued a report last month that estimates about 6,000 pedestrians were killed on U.S. roadways last year. That number is basically unchanged from 2016 but represents a nearly 50 percent increase since 2009.

Though the upward shift is most striking among pedestrian fatalities, overall traffic deaths also remain at an alarmingly high level, authorities say. For the second consecutive year, U.S. road deaths topped 40,000 last year, according to the National Safety Council.

“The price we are paying for mobility is 40,000 lives each year,” said NSC chief executive Deborah A.P. Hersman. “This is a stark reminder that our complacency is killing us. The only acceptable number is zero.”

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At least 33 U.S. jurisdictions are part of the Vision Zero initiative, modeled after a pioneering Swedish program started in 1997, with the aim of eliminating fatalities and serious injuries. To achieve the goal, the program uses strategies focused on enforcement, public education, street engineering and data collection.

But the increase in fatalities has led critics to question the effectiveness of the program and whether cities are doing enough to make streets safer for all road users.

Zimbabwe said the numbers don’t reflect the progress that has been made. In 2011, the District had 32 traffic deaths. The latest numbers reflect a leveling off when measured against the city’s population growth, he said.

“We are not backsliding,” Zimbabwe said. “We are seeing ourselves laying the groundwork for the next things that will get us down to zero, and it is not going to happen overnight. There’s nobody out there with a ‘mission accomplished’ banner saying we are there yet. We take it very, very seriously.”

Bowser’s office declined to provide comment from the mayor, instead referring a reporter to DDOT.

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Experts agree that change will come slowly. They say cities need to remain committed to their goals — both with leadership and funding — noting that it will require investment, policies and unpopular measures such as speed restrictions and automated enforcement.

“If we weren’t doing these approaches, the numbers would actually be a lot worse,” Adkins said. “It is not that these programs are not being successful. It’s just they need to have a lot more support.”

Few are willing to assign a clear cause to the increase in traffic deaths, but research shows alcohol, speed and distracted driving remain leading factors.

Studies point to distractions among pedestrians, including texting while walking. The Governors Highway Safety Association study found marijuana use also could be a factor, noting that jurisdictions that have legalized the drug in recent years, including the District, have seen increases in the number of pedestrian deaths.

The District has been targeting speeding by reinforcing its lucrative speed-camera program and lowering speed limits in some corridors. It also has identified the most dangerous intersections and created a task force to study each fatal crash. Additionally, officials are retrofitting 36 intersections that have dual turn lanes and where engineers have found a pattern of pedestrian injuries.

The city said it has worked with schools and other organizations to educate residents about bike safety and how to safely get around the city. At a Vision Zero summit Thursday, officials will discuss the initiative’s successes, failures and regional strategies.

“The last couple of years have been hard,” Zimbabwe said. “We have been putting things in motion, but we have seen the consistent numbers of fatalities.”

The summit will give the city an opportunity to discuss the problem on a regional scale and “bring everybody together on how we solve this as a region. Because two-thirds of the cars on our streets are non-District residents and so it is not something that any of us has the power to solve just on our own,” he said.

However, the District also has failed to implement regulations it said would help move the city on the path to zero. Rules first proposed in December 2015 that would have imposed heftier fines on road violators and implemented 15 mph zones, has stalled for two years following passionate public input. DDOT officials would not say this week if those rules will ever move forward.

To advocates, the District’s response hasn’t been fast enough for a growing city of 700,000 residents where walking, biking and public transit are popular means of getting around.

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Among those killed last year was a 62-year-old woman who was crossing H Street NE when she was struck by a sedan turning left off 10th Street and onto H Street. In February, 2017, a 65-year old victim was struck and killed in Northwest D.C. by a speeding car whose driver was drunk, authorities said.

“More people are walking and riding, which means we are going to see some increase in injury and, tragically, fatalities. But it also means we need to be doing more,” said Greg Billing, a supporter of the Vision Zero approach and executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

“We are not doing enough or we are not doing the right thing,” he said.