The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion D.C. can’t fix distracted driving. It can fix street design.

A pedestrian passes by the intersection of Georgia Ave. and Webster St. NW in Washington, D.C. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Matthew Koehler is a D.C.-based freelance writer.

There was another traffic crash involving a child. This one was in the 3300 block of Wheeler Road SE. A 9-year-old child is paralyzed. D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) made what WAMU reporter Martin Austermuhle identified as a rare appearance to urge “especially drivers … to slow down, put the phones down, and in school zones be mindful of our young people.”

These words fall flat, though, given the fact that D.C. has already lowered the speed limit to 20 mph — 15 around schools, playgrounds, recreational facilities, etc. Encouraging drivers to behave better and even changing the law won’t work. If you don’t believe me, walk, bike or even drive around the city on any given day, and you’ll see what I mean.

The statistics and incident reports back this up.

There has been a rash of these types of crashes recently, and we all remember the heartbreaking story of the two little girls, 6 and 9 years old, and their father hit in a crosswalk on National Walk to School Day in October. They survived, but the 6-year-old needed extensive surgery.

Back in September, a 5-year-old girl was struck in a crosswalk and killed. Later that month, 4-year-old Nathan Ballard-Means was also struck in a crosswalk, but he survived.

Scrolling through Twitter, there’s another video showing a hit-and-run of a 9-year-old on a bicycle. The driver didn’t stop at a stop sign and nearly clipped the curb making a left turn. Though the hit-and-run is on the driver, the behavior could be eliminated with better road design that forces better behavior from everyone behind the wheel.

Many of us probably have our own stories of near misses, whether we were walking, cycling or even driving ourselves. Several years ago, I was struck by an impatient driver while biking in a crosswalk on 4th Street SW. That road, specifically redesigned to be a “shared-use” road, didn’t prevent me from getting hit. The driver who hit me had intentionally sped around another car that had stopped to let me cross.

The fact glaring us in the face, and we all know this, is that drivers are the problem. We’ve long had a culture and lax enforcement that turn a blind eye or even encourage bad driving. And, in many ways, our roads are designed to let us get away with it.

Once we’re inside our cars, we enter our own little bubbles and anything that prevents us from getting to where we want to go in the rushed time we need to get there becomes an inconvenience. We speed everywhere. We roll through stop signs. We cut people off in crosswalks. We cut off other drivers. We don’t use turn signals, etc., ad infinitum. All because our priorities warrant these “minor” bendings and breakings of the rules. It’s all about us and our time.

We’re both distracted drivers and bad drivers — a deadly combination.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the National Safety Council, the D.C. police, the mayor and the entire world, distracted and impaired driving is really the problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that distracted driving caused 3,142 deaths in 2019 and injured approximately 424,000 people.

D.C. has laws against using a cellphone or any non-hands-free device while driving, but, honestly, how often is that enforced? Many of us have witnessed distracted drivers at all times of the day, especially rush hour, talking on or otherwise using their phones. I’ve seen many police officers do the same — while making turns into a crosswalk with a walk signal.

At the height of the pandemic with emptier streets, this got only worse. Drivers drove faster, and more people were struck and seriously injured or killed. The bad driving doesn’t seem to be abating, either. In D.C., serious injuries and fatalities because of traffic crashes are on a several-year upward trend. There have been 359 serious injuries and 40 fatalities as of Christmas week, according to Vision Zero data.

Asking drivers to slow down and stop being distracted never works. Ever. Changing the speed limit won’t help either without some kind of consistent enforcement. The only thing that makes safer drivers is safer road design. And if we don’t have officials who can make that happen, then it’s time for them to go.