An increase in traffic fatalities is prompting D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser to step up the city’s crackdown on traffic law violators with additional prevention and enforcement measures, including restricting right turns on red and limiting left turns at some intersections to make roads safer.
The District is shaking up its Vision Zero strategy following a rash of fatal collisions involving pedestrians and bicyclists since the summer — and mounting criticism from residents and advocates who say the city’s commitment to the program started three years ago with a goal to end traffic deaths by 2024, is failing.
As an immediate measure, D.C. police are readying a three-day citywide safety blitz starting Thursday, during which they will target speeding and impaired drivers at multiple locations. Police also will be citing drivers “blocking the box” and bike lanes, D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said. He said the agency is also looking at increasing the number of red-light cameras in the city.
The city also is considering banning right turns on red at 100 locations, according to the District Department of Transportation. The intersections are in school zones and within the central business district or near bike lanes, where the risks to pedestrians are highest, officials said. Drivers will also see more restrictions on left turns at some intersections.
Bowser last month sent a set of new regulations to the D.C. Council establishing tougher penalties for traffic infractions to deter dangerous road behaviors — chiefly speeding. Those are expected to go into effect in December.
Advocates and other elected officials said they welcome the new measures, but question whether enough resources will be dedicated to enforce the new rules and whether enough is being done to yield results. The ban on red light turns should be universal and more must me done to enhance the existing infrastructure so that the city eventually has a network of separate spaces for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, they said.
“To say that we are going to do this thing without the proper enforcement, I think it doesn’t help,” Council member David Grosso (I-At Large) told Bowser at Tuesday’s Council breakfast. “If you don’t do enforcement . . . you are going to have major, major problems.”
Rachel Maisler, a biking advocate and Ward 4 representative on the D.C. Bicycle Advisory Council, said the city has had enough deaths that could have been prevented. People have grown tired of “empty promises,” she said, and the city has not invested enough resources, energy or political will to make Vision Zero a reality.
“It all looks great on paper, but it’s been on paper for more than three years,” Maisler said. “I told the mayor today, I just don’t want to die riding my bike in D.C. and I don’t think that is too much to ask.”
With slightly over two months left in the year, 2018 has already claimed 31 traffic fatalities — four more than reported at the same time last year and one more than the 2017 total. That number is also up from 28 in 2016 and 26 in 2015.
Of those killed on D.C. streets this year, 12, or nearly 40 percent, were pedestrians; one was on a scooter, three were bicyclists, seven were on motorcycles and eight were drivers or passengers.
The victims come from all backgrounds and ages, and the circumstances of their deaths vary, with no single cause to be blamed, officials said, yet they point to speeding and jaywalking as major concerns citywide.
Two pedestrians were killed this month alone; one case occurred in broad daylight and involved a woman walking on a designated pedestrian path, and the other occurred at night and involved a person who was walking outside the crosswalk.
Carol Joan Tomason, 70, was visiting downtown Washington on the morning of Oct. 12, when she was stuck and killed by a pickup truck making a left turn from H Street onto the northbound lanes of 15th Street NW, police said. She was using a marked crosswalk.
A week earlier, Ramona Williamson, 49, of Southeast, was killed after she was struck and pinned under a four-door sedan. Williamson was outside a crosswalk on Central Avenue SE around 9:50 p.m., a street lined with homes and near the East Capitol Community Center.
Twelve days earlier, Carlos Sanchez-Martin, 20, of Silver Spring, was riding an electric scooter at 10 a.m. when he was killed in a collision with an SUV at Dupont Circle in what was the District’s first fatality involving a rider using one of the shared-scooter services operating in the city
Bowser updated the D.C. Council on her Vision Zero initiatives Tuesday morning, before heading out to kick off a “Slow Down” campaign at Garfield Elementary School on Alabama Avenue SE, one of four high-crash corridors the city has identified. Reducing the number of crash victims, Bowser said, requires all road users to do their part.
“We need people who use our roads to also be focused on that and doing everything they can to be safe users of the roadway,” she said.
City transportation officials said they are improving intersections with dual turn lanes, adding protected bike lanes, and eliminating sidewalk gaps to improve safety. They are expanding designated drop-off and pickup zones for ride-share vehicles to reduce their intrusion on crosswalks and bike lanes. And, they are examining more than 100 intersections where a left turn can be problematic, as was the case in the Oct. 12 incident, and where street design improvements can help deter collisions. DDOT is also seeking to take over the city’s automated enforcement program from D.C. police next year to reduce time it takes to process tickets and expedite the deployment of additional traffic enforcement cameras.
In addition, the city is considering requiring the more than 400,000 D.C. driver’s license holders to undertake a refresher test on the rules of the road when their licenses are up for renewal, according to Department of Motor Vehicles director Lucinda Babers. Bowser urged the DMV to explore nontraditional methods, such a “fun quiz,” to engage drivers in reviewing road rules and emphasize awareness of pedestrians, bicyclists and scooter riders.
The Department of Public Works, which is responsible for parking enforcement, is being more aggressive in ticketing drivers who park in bike lanes and crosswalks, blocking and potentially creating hazardous conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. The department is adding 19 enforcement officers before the end of the year to increase enforcement, director Chris Shorter said, and some of the officers will be patrolling on bikes to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges cyclists face, he said.
DPW also is seeking authority to mail parking tickets to drivers who leave before they are served a ticket in instances where they have parked in bike lanes and crosswalks. Officials said this is a recurring problem with ride-share and delivery vehicles. Currently, ticket officers are required to leave the ticket on the vehicle’s windshield. The ticket is void if the driver takes off before the officer gets to the car.
Bowser launched Vision Zero on Feb. 20, 2015, joining other major cities around the world that have committed to the initiative modeled after a pioneering Swedish program started in 1997, with the aim of eliminating fatalities and serious injuries. She promised to lead the nation’s capital into an era free of traffic fatalities as one of her first initiatives as mayor. But the number of traffic fatalities has increased steadily since then, frustrating city officials and advocates, and putting the goal to reach zero deaths by 2024 further from reach.
The District’s death toll reflects a national trend. Data released this year by the Governors Highway Safety Association shows that after decades of improvement, traffic deaths are increasing across the country — especially among pedestrians.
In the District, the number has been cut by more than half since the turn of the century from 72 in 2001 to 30 last year, according to city data. Though the number of fatalities has increased, the number of crashes overall has remained at the same level, city data shows.