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D.C. must do more to address safety after deaths of bicyclist and scooter rider, council member says

Council member Mary Cheh says the city needs more bike lanes, especially the kind that separate bicycles — and maybe scooters — from vehicles.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the recent deaths of a rider on a scooter and a bicyclist suggest the city needs to move quickly to address safety concerns about scooter-sharing and step up its pace building bike lanes. (Gerald Martineau for The Washington Post) (Gerald Martineau for TWP/The Washington Post)

The deaths of a bicyclist and a person on a scooter in the District suggest the city needs to move quickly to address the growing number of injuries linked to electric scooters and step up its pace building bike lanes, a D.C. council member said.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) said the city may need to draft new rules that allow scooter-sharing to be an alternative for short urban trips while also protecting the safety of riders and pedestrians.

“I am a little concerned about safety issues, because I do see some [scooter] users who do appear to me to be a little bit reckless, weaving in and out of cars, and going up and down on sidewalks and going around people in a way that looks a little dangerous,” Cheh said in an interview Tuesday. “But I figure there may be ways to try to get that under control.”

That could mean accelerating the construction of bike- and pedestrian-friendly streets and requiring scooters to operate only in bike lanes, Cheh said. But she also said she doesn’t want to discourage the use of scooters, which have become popular as a speedy way to get around on trips that are too far to walk but too short for Metro, a taxi or ride-hailing.

“It looks like a lot of fun,” said Cheh, who said she has not taken a spin on a scooter. She said she hopes the discussion about their safety will be part of the broader discussion about the city’s Vision Zero initiative at Thursday’s joint meeting of the council’s transportation and public safety committees. The goal of the Vision Zero program, which has been embraced by other cities, is to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024. But so far, the number continues to rise across the country, particularly for pedestrians.

Bird spokeswoman Mackenzie Long said the scooter company considers safety a top concern. For that reason, users must upload a driver’s license and confirm that they are 18 or older, and the company restricts the top speed on their devices, she said. Bird has also handed out free helmets to more than 50,000 riders and set up aside a portion of revenue to fund protected bike lanes.

“We understand the temptation to focus on any increase in incidents, but it’s wrong to compare a period when there were no e-scooters to today when they are being used by thousands of riders in dozens of U.S. cities,” Long said in an email. “The true danger on our roads is cars.”

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Cheh called for more urgent steps after an Arlington, Va., bicyclist died of injuries he suffered Monday in a hit-and-run crash. Thomas H. Hollowell, 64, was fatally injured on a bicycle Monday morning when he was hit by a vehicle that ran a red light at Constitution Avenue and 12th Street NW near the Mall, police said. The vehicle was described as a dark-colored sedan that was heading north on 12th Street at high speed and failed to stop at a red light and hit the bicyclist in the intersection.

District police have recorded 27 traffic deaths in D.C. this year, including 14 pedestrians and bicyclists, and the scooter rider. That compares with 24 at this time last year.

Meanwhile, as electric scooters have multiplied on city streets around the country, so have the number of injuries. In what is believed to be D.C.’s first scooter-related fatality, a 20-year-old man from Silver Spring was killed in a collision with an SUV in Dupont Circle last Friday. A 24-year-old Dallas man suffered a fatal head injury on an e-scooter earlier this month.

e-Scooter rider fatally injured by SUV in D.C.'s Dupont Circle

The issue has grabbed the attention of city planners and transportation officials, who have been working to recast urban centers for pedestrians, bicycles, bike-sharing, dockless bicycles and now scooters as part of the move toward transit-friendly development and away from automobiles. San Francisco imposed a ban earlier this year as city officials until transit officials worked out regulations and issued permits for two companies, according to a report in last month.

But the search for alternatives to the car — and perhaps the ubiquity of smartphone-related distractions — has also led to an increase in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities. Bicycle fatalities have risen 35 percent since 2010, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal identifying Florida as the deadliest state for bicyclists in the United States, and Pinellas County in Florida as the most dangerous locality there. The Journal says while fatalities have increased in many states since then, three states account for most: Florida, California and Texas.

Cheh, who heads the D.C. Council’s Committee on Transportation & the Environment, said she would like to see not only more bike lanes in the city but also lanes that are segregated by barriers from the flow of vehicular traffic as one often finds in some European cities. Yet she feels as though the District’s pace of building bike lanes has lagged.

“If we could keep everybody separated, we’d be a whole lot safer,” Cheh said. “I want to see all of these things be successful."

Terry Owens, a spokesman for the District Department of Transportation, said the city has nearly 75 miles of bike lanes, including more than nine miles of protected lanes, and is on pace to add five miles this year. That compares to 3.3 miles of new bike lanes added in 2017. Owens also said that the dockless vehicles pilot would continue into 2019.

“DDOT is using the demonstration project to learn best practices on the number of vehicles that should be allowed, how best to regulate the companies involved, and how to encourage/enforce safe use of the vehicles,” Owens said in an email. In the meantime, the agency is proposing a rule-making strategy that “stresses engineering, education and enforcement.”

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