The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. region renews push on pedestrian safety as deaths increase here and nationwide

Street Smart’s annual educational and enforcement campaign kicks off as shorter days mean the most dangerous time of year for pedestrians and cyclists

George Branyan, an official with the D.C. Department of Transportation, takes a spin at the wheel of Street Smart's Virtual Reality Challenge. (Fredrick Kunkle/The Washington Post)
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The guy in the Penn State hoodie crossed Georgia Avenue back and forth so many times in only a few minutes that it looked as though he couldn’t make up his mind about where he was going.

But the walkie-talkie in Sgt. Jeremy Smalley’s hand should have been the tipoff to the motorists who blew past him in a downtown Silver Spring crosswalk that a police crackdown was underway.

“I was shocked,” said Cheryl Perry, 56, of the District, moments after police issued her a citation that carries an $80 fine (along with a point against her license) for allegedly failing to stop for a pedestrian in the crosswalk at Georgia Avenue and Fenwick Street. She said she never saw the pedestrians, but also took the crackdown — and the ticket — in stride.

“It’s a good thing, because someone could get hurt, ” Perry said. “There’s nothing I can do but pay it — just pay it and be more careful.”

Smalley, with a team of six other officers, made 24 traffic stops in about two hours’ time Thursday as part of Street Smart’s annual educational and enforcement campaign to reduce traffic deaths in the region. The campaign — which will run through Dec. 2 — comes as days shorten and darkness falls early, making it the most dangerous time of the year for people on foot and bicycles.

The extra push also comes as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other regional leaders renew their efforts to improve traffic safety as pedestrian deaths increase here and nationwide.

In 2017, there were 313 traffic deaths in the D.C. region, including 77 pedestrians and five bicyclists, compared with 278 the previous year, including 67 pedestrians and 10 bicyclists, Street Smart says. Nationwide, pedestrian deaths increased 9 percent to 5,987 in 2016, the highest number since 1990, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Last month, Bowser announced an intensified commitment to Vision Zero and its goal of eliminating traffic deaths by 2024 after a series of fatal crashes this year, including 12 pedestrians, three bicyclists and a person on a scooter, that pushed the city’s total above last year’s mark.

On Thursday, officials from the D.C. Department of Transportation, the Maryland Department of Transportation and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, and several ranking police officers and county officials, gathered at Veterans Plaza to draw attention to the campaign.

Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski emphasized that everyone out there — motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists — has a duty to look out for others on the road.

“It can happen to you,” he said, urging drivers to slow down and pedestrians to be alert. He and other officials also said people need to put their smartphones down, adding that distracted driving appears to be a growing contributor to collisions.

D.C. police crackdown takes aim at pedestrian safety -- and sometimes pedestrians themselves

The campaign this year also included a canary-yellow Chevy Camaro outfitted with virtual-reality gear that allows people to test their wits and reflexes in scenarios involving possible collisions with pedestrians and bicyclists. The traveling exhibit — called the Street Smart Virtual Reality Challenge — is scheduled to visit Fort Belvoir and Howard University later this month as it makes the rounds among schools and events, Street Smart spokesman Jeff Salzgeber said.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, police officers were out in force as Smalley and his team, including motorcycle officers and officers on foot, were busy handing out tickets at Fenwick Street and Georgia Avenue. Police issued 13 citations and 16 warnings.

“It’s a terrible intersection,” said Anne Morris, 54, who lives nearby in Silver Spring and attends nursing school at the University of Maryland. “It’s on a super-busy road . . . There’s no [traffic] light. Unless you venture out there into the crosswalk, people don’t see you. Even if they do see you, they rarely stop. If you’re not familiar with Georgia Avenue, you don’t even know there’s a crosswalk there.”

But Thursday’s crackdown also unwittingly cast a light on street design in which pedestrian safety appeared to have been an afterthought. Several pedestrians said they thought the crosswalk on that busy stretch of Georgia Avenue is poorly marked.

The most prominent warning of pedestrians crossing comes from one small sign planted in the median; it advises motorists that they must stop for people in the crosswalks. In addition, there were two signs at the curb and stop bars painted on the street just before the crosswalks.

What the intersection could use, given the confluence of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, is something like the traffic signal above the midblock crossing on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park. The double red light goes on to let pedestrians cross, then flashes so that vehicles can proceed when there are no more people in the crosswalk.

“I’m glad they’re doing it,” said Mark Minwah, 30, of Laurel, as he paused to watch the enforcement effort at Georgia and Fenwick. Minwah, who repairs medical equipment, said he’s seen many close calls at the intersection.

“People are not paying attention. They’re on their phones,” he said, adding that the county should probably do more than an occasional police sting. “It’s not enough. The signs are not visible enough. That’s all the signs — right there.”

Perry, who was among the drivers ticketed Thursday, agreed. She said she never saw Smalley or other pedestrians.

“I didn’t see it, and clearly I’m not the only one,” said Perry, a medical technician.

At the news conference, Montgomery County Council President Hans Riemer said one of the suburb’s thorniest problems is midblock crosswalks that require vehicles to stop for pedestrians. It’s better than having no crosswalk — because people will often cross anyway — but the midblock crosswalk can catch drivers by surprise and give pedestrians a false sense of security, he said.

The danger is especially great when a pedestrian begins to cross, feeling secure in having the right of way, as vehicles in the nearest lane stop for him. But as the pedestrian continues past the first vehicle, thinking all is clear, another vehicle rolls past in the next lane over, not having seen the pedestrian or having paid no attention to the vehicle that had come to a stop.

At Fenwick, police could have written tickets all day long as that very scenario played out again and again. Minutes after police wrapped up the special enforcement, it happened again more than once, not far from where the officers were tallying the results from the crackdown.

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