The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ignorance is not bliss for the safety of D.C. bicyclists and pedestrians

A bicyclist on 15th Street in downtown Washington. (Keith Lane/For The Washington Post)

Jeff Johnson is a longtime cyclist, a member of the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council and a certified bicycle safety instructor.

District transportation safety officials may be underestimating by half the city’s serious transportation-related injuries, according to two D.C. Council-appointed bicycle and pedestrian advisory panels. The failure comes during a time of exploding demand for biking, scooter riding and just plain walking. Providing safe streets and sidewalks requires at a minimum knowing where and what the problems are.

Consider Kaela Bamberger, a longtime bicyclist who, like a growing number of residents, doesn’t own a car. Instead she bikes — exercise plus no parking hassles, gas bills or pollution.

In December, she began her daily commute: Florida Avenue NE, south down Fourth Street, a bike lane all the way.

When she reached Stanton Park, she waited at a traffic light, next to an oversized 18-wheel tractor-trailer, towering over her at the busy corner of Fourth and Massachusetts Avenue NE, where the bike lane was partially blocked by a construction dumpster and the lane’s unmaintained stripes had all but disappeared.

“When the light turned green, I put my foot back on the pedal and began to enter the intersection. I was planning on continuing in the bike lane through the intersection. Suddenly, the truck turned right, hitting my left side and knocking me over. I fell under the truck, and the rear tires started to run over me,” she explained in a statement.

“I screamed out and the truck seemed to stop. I remember hearing bystanders yelling to the truck driver that he was hitting a cyclist. As the tires crushed me, I was in excruciating pain. Bystanders came and tried to comfort me while I waited for the ambulance to arrive.”

She was taken to MedStar Washington Hospital Center, one of the District’s four trauma injury centers.

Her pelvis was crushed, her spleen was removed, and she remained in the hospital for more than a month. She is still in rehab, relearning how to move and walk again.

A month later, another bicyclist was injured in a bike lane on 15th Street NW, where the lane is broken up by alleyways. The rider was knocked unconscious, suffering a concussion and a broken wrist. She wound up at the George Washington University Hospital trauma center.

The crashes share key commonalities. Both were in poorly maintained and confusing bike lanes, and police reports were nonexistent, wrong or incomplete. The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department never interviewed Bamberger. She submitted a statement at her lawyer’s urging, but MPD has yet to recognize its receipt. Her pelvis-crushing accident failed to meet a level meriting police investigation, a police representative said at a recent public meeting.

For the 15th Street crash, a report exists but fails to accurately describe the site or crash details. The cyclist was not interviewed for the report.

Despite such shortcomings, the D.C. Department of Transportation relies primarily on police crash reports to gauge safety and to direct its work. Other cities are taking a better path.

Several years ago, San Francisco, like the District today, began to implement a Vision Zero transportation safety program. It found that police-reported crash data missed 20 percent to 30 percent of pedestrian and cyclist traumatic injuries. The San Francisco study compared accident data collected by the city’s trauma centers with police-reported crash data.

The D.C. Department of Health also collects injury data from its trauma centers. Until this past October, however, the Health Department had issued only one annual Trauma Registry report, and that was for 2016. In October, it finally issued a 2017 report.

This is a start, but it is too little, too late. The 2017 trauma report closely matched the 2016 injury numbers, but there is a huge variance in police and Trauma Registry data.

For 2017, the D.C. Registry reports more than 300 pedestrians reported to D.C. trauma centers, 250 specifically injured by motor vehicles. For comparison, DDOT/MPD claims 122 majorly injured pedestrians in 2019, less than half the registry’s number. Unfortunately, a direct yearly comparison is impossible because the Health Department has no 2019 admittance data and MPD/DDOT has no 2017 public crash reports.

The Trauma Registry also finds some 240 cyclists reported to trauma centers in 2017. DDOT/MPD shows 52 for 2019, one-quarter the trauma numbers.

The District needs to overhaul its crash data collection systems and coordinate its police-generated crash and hospital-generated trauma reports. It also needs to bring the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Service Department into the picture so we know where accidents occur. With this combined information, we would have an accurate understanding of how and where bicyclists and pedestrians are injured and what is needed to improve safety in the District and at a minimum maintain what we have.

We safety advocates don’t want to scare bike riders and pedestrians off our streets and sidewalks, but we won’t know how to fix safety problems if we don’t understand them.

Read more:

Thor Hogan: Could bicycles help save the planet and improve our cities?

Guy Edwards: Drivers, help us cyclists get home alive

Paul Basken: If car drivers made bicyclists feel safer, we’d all be better off

The Post’s View: A promising plan for bike lanes in Montgomery County