Among the proposals discussed by the council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment are lower speed limits and improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, in line with Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s Vision Zero traffic safety plan.
“I am glad that we are here today, but it matters more what we do the day after the hearing, and how we move forward,” said Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). “We don’t have the luxury of not taking action.”
Allen is chief sponsor of the Vision Zero Omnibus bill, one of seven on Thursday’s docket, that among other things would establish a citywide ban on right-on-red turns, lower speed limits to 20 mph, and set fines of up to $10,000 a day for contractors who fail to restore crosswalks and bicycle lanes after completing work.
The bill also proposes a pilot program to allow regular citizens to issue tickets to illegally parked vehicles: those blocking crosswalks, in bike lanes and in front of bus stops. Critics say these “citizen cops” would be a recipe for disaster.
Allen said the bill would overhaul the city’s approach to reducing traffic deaths, targeting critical infrastructure improvements and stepped-up enforcement. It would also address transportation equity concerns, setting procedures to identify high-risk intersections and areas where transit access needs improvement. The bill was co-introduced with seven other Council members and three co-sponsors.
So far this year, the overall number of traffic fatalities in the city is down about 30 percent, compared with last year — when it hit a decade high. The decline mirrors a national trend. But the number of deaths involving pedestrians or those traveling on two wheels is up. More than half of those killed so far this year were traveling on foot, bike or scooter, according to city data.
Officials and advocates say saving lives takes a comprehensive approach that combines enforcement, education and infrastructure improvements to accommodate the traffic shifts in the city where a growing number of people on bikes, scooters and other light modes of transportation are sharing the road with motor vehicles.
Another bill heard Thursday, the Mandatory Protected Cycling Lane Amendment Act of 2019, would require the city to install permanent, protected bike lanes whenever a roadway within the city’s bicycle plan undergoes repair or construction. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), who chairs the transportation committee, is the bill’s chief sponsor. Eight other council members are co-sponsors.
A bill introduced by council Chairman Phil Mendelson, on behalf of Bowser, would allow the Department of Motor Vehicles to assess points for distracted driving violations, even when the violation does not result in a crash, ending a long-standing provision in city law against such penalties.
Other proposals would require the District plan for improvements to sidewalks and crosswalks when it performs roadwork, and mandate anyone applying for a D.C. driver’s license be quizzed on bicycle safety.
Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) said she plans to introduce a bill in coming weeks to target reckless driving. Her proposal would require that anyone with five or more speeding or red light tickets take a class or face their car being impounded.
“What is happening in our city is that tragedy after tragedy has occurred without the change, without real action that would make vision zero a reality,” Silverman said.
Witness after witness spoke of fears of riding bikes in unprotected bike lanes or walking along streets where there are long stretches without sidewalks. Some spoke of loved ones who had been killed.
“I have lived 377 days without my mother,” said Meredith Tomason, with D.C. Families for Safe Streets, a group of advocates founded by relatives of victims of traffic crashes. “We are all part of an unfortunate club that we do not wish to be a member of.”
Tomason’s mother, Carol Tomason, was visiting Washington on Oct. 12, 2018, when she was struck and killed while crossing in a marked crosswalk downtown.
“The explainable and unimaginable happened to my mother and to our family,” Tomason said. “All of this could have been prevented and none of it should have happened.”
Fourth-grader Amir Goodman joined two other 9-year-olds to tell council members how they are afraid to ride bikes in their neighborhood and cross wide streets.
“I often feel unsafe walking across the street because crosswalks are very long and there isn’t enough time to cross,” Amir said. “Instead of walking normally, sometimes I have to hurry.”
Jeremiah Lowery, advocacy director at the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, said the group supports all the proposals, with some changes, including removing the plan for the “citizen cops.”
Lowery said it’s best to leave the enforcement to the professionals, but overall he said the proposals tackle concerns the community has about reckless driving behaviors, lack of enforcement and the need for better infrastructure.
“Let’s be honest, whether there are 50 fatalities or 10, that’s 10 too many. The goal is zero. If the goal is zero, then one is too many,” he said. “These proposals will push us forward into achieving zero. They are a start.”
John Townsend, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said some of the proposals, such as reduced speed limits and the ban on right turns on red, could create more problems.
“We are concerned about the effort under the banner of Vision Zero to lower speed limits significantly in the District without mandating or requiring the requisite traffic or engineering studies,” Townsend said. “If the speed limit is improperly set, it will not improve traffic safety. It will engender the opposite.”
Prohibiting right turns on red could increase the number of collisions by right-turning vehicles, he said, because vehicles would be moving or turning at higher speeds to make the green light. Experts think, he said, that it also would create more gridlock.
“It would also make the commute unpredictable and increase the amount of time commuters are late to work during peak periods,” he said. “Sounds safer? Not necessarily.”
The city has stepped up its traffic-safety efforts in recent months — restricting left and right turns at some intersections, converting some two-way stop intersections into four-way stops, and enhancing safety in trouble spots such as a stretch of Florida Avenue where a bike advocate was killed in April. The actions followed several high-profile crashes in the spring, including a deadly Easter weekend that left three people dead, including the advocate. The string of fatalities ignited protests, die-in demonstrations at City Hall and a push for road safety bills.
As of Thursday, the District had recorded 22 traffic fatalities for the year, down from 31 at the same time last year, according to D.C. police data. On Tuesday, a 17-year old driver was killed in a crash in Northeast Washington. Of those killed so far: ten were pedestrians, two were bicyclists and one was on a scooter.
“People are grieving all over the city,” said Allen, who had a friend who was struck and killed while walking in the city last year and who also knew activist David Salovesh, the person killed on Easter weekend when he was struck by a stolen minivan whose driver was fleeing police.
“For a long time the criticism of the District has been that the city waits until there is a collision, until there’s an injury or death, and then it takes action,” Allen said. “The whole idea behind this legislation is: Let’s stop waiting until a life is lost.”