For example, the fine for striking a bicyclist would increase from $50 to $500; a driver failing to yield to a pedestrian while turning right on red would cost $200 rather than $50; and parking in a bike lane would increase from the current $65 to $200 for private cars and $300 for commercial vehicles. Swinging open a parked car’s door into the path of a cyclist would incur a $100 fine instead of the current $25.
The biggest penalty would hit speeders going 25 mph or more over the speed limit would would face a fine of $1,000– up from $300.
The proposed fines– and a plan to add dozens more traffic enforcement cameras– have been widely criticized as the city’s attempt to penalize drivers and generate revenue. Transportation officials, however, say the intent of the plan is not to target a particular group of road users, but protect those most vulnerable, and they say speed reduction as the best way to do that.
“The fact of the matter is that at higher speeds the probability of death for pedestrians or bicyclists is about 75 percent,” D.C. Department of Transportation Director Leif Dormsjo said. “If you reduce speeds into the 20’s the probability of their survival is in the 90 percent.”
More specifically, D.C. data indicates that when a vehicle traveling approximately 20 mph strikes a pedestrian, the victim has a 94 percent chance of surviving, but if the vehicle is traveling 50 mph, the likelihood drops to 25 percent.
New rules for the road are necessary, officials and advocates say, in a rapidly changing city where driving is no longer the primary mode of transportation. According to Census figures, nearly 5 percent of D.C. commuters bike to work, 13.6 walk, and 38.5 percent take transit.
In a recent survey, the District found that speeding drivers are at the top of residents’ concerns, followed by distracted drivers. The city’s speed limit is 25 mph unless signs indicate otherwise, but tickets are not issued unless vehicles are traveling faster than 10 mph above the posted limit.
The new fines also include: $200 for rolling through a right-turn-on-red; $100 for speeding near a school zone or a recreation or senior center; $500 for failing to slow down and getting out of the way for an ambulance, fire engine or police car responding to an incident; and $500 for failure to yield to a bus reentering traffic.
“The easiest way not to pay these fines is to follow the law,” said Gregory Billing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), a group that has been lobbying for safer and more welcoming roads for cyclists. “These are all avoidable fines.”
Supporters of the steeper penalties say they match the severity of violations. Anything that can lead drivers to slow down on roads shared with scores of people on two wheels and on foot, should be helpful in ending traffic fatalities, they say.
From 2010 to 2014, traffic-related deaths in the District included 57 pedestrians, seven bicyclists and 67 drivers or passengers, according to police data. On average, 26 people are killed each year. So far this year, 24 deaths have been reported, officials said.
Dormsjo said the new fines “give us the tools to protect our most vulnerable travelers, and are intended to deter behaviors that needlessly endanger everyone in our transportation network.”
The new fines are part of the city’s “Vision Zero” approach, which aims to eliminate traffic-related deaths and serious injuries by 2024, with an emphasis on pedestrians and bicyclists. There is a 30-day public comment period on the proposal, and the D.C. Council will have 45 days to review it. But no formal vote is required by the council, though members can ask DDOT to amend or reject the proposed rules, transportation officials said.
An official with AAA Mid-Atlantic has called the fines “exorbitant” and questions why they target drivers exclusively– and particularly those from Maryland and Virginia. Not one regulation specifically addresses road behavior of cyclists and pedestrians.
Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) declined to comment Wednesday when asked by a reporter about concerns that the city is targeting motorists. But in remarks earlier, she said, “The commuters that come into our city — and we love the people that come into our city– but we want them to follow the rules as well.”
She said that if the city and region are to reach their true potential, “everybody can’t drive and if everybody recognizes that and if we want people to move to other modes of transportation, it is incumbent upon us to make sure that we are doing everything possible to make people safe when they walk, when they bike, when they ride transit, when they look for parking spaces, when they drive to Washington D.C.”
Billing, with the bicyclists group, said he expects some of the new rules will apply to bicyclists too. If a bike rider fails to yield to a pedestrian, he or she should be held accountable, he said. But he and other advocates say the key is not just putting in place new regulations, but also ensuring they are being enforced.
Moira McCauley, an advocate with the group All Walks DC, said that while in general the group supports fines that reflect the seriousness of unsafe driving behaviors that can injure or kill pedestrians there are questions about high fines.
“While fines do reduce infractions, very high ones may disproportionately affect low-income and over-policed residents,” McCauley said.
“Fines are just one piece of the puzzle,” she said, noting that research suggests slightly over half of road fatalities are the result of aggressive driving and nearly 40 percent of impaired driving. “So we need ways of changing these behaviors. More regular enforcement of these infractions is one way. “There are also ways infrastructure can be built to discourage people from driving at reckless speeds–narrower lanes, bumpouts, and signaling can all encourage drivers to slow down, while still keeping traffic moving.”