“There is no higher priority in the District right now,” D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson said Thursday. She said her office expects to bring “a clear-eyed review of what has been done to date and what might be improved — and how equitably the District’s resources have been deployed to promote traffic safety.”
The District in recent years has launched policies including new and heftier fines for traffic violators while establishing more restrictions on left turns and right-on-red turns. The city also has lowered speed limits in some areas and opened a Vision Zero office to coordinate citywide efforts to reduce traffic injuries and fatalities.
But the deadly crashes have not slowed. Safety advocates and residents say they illustrate a growing problem with reckless driving, mainly speeding, and a lack of enforcement and safe infrastructure for people on foot, bikes and scooters.
DDOT said in a statement Thursday the agency will work with the auditor’s office during the review. The audit, first reported by DCist, is expected to be complete in 10 months.
“DDOT has a robust set of safety programs in place to achieve Mayor Bowser’s Vision Zero goals, and we look forward to working with the DC Auditor to help increase the public’s understanding of those efforts,” the DDOT statement said.
The investigation of the city’s Vision Zero effort has been under consideration since October 2018. At that time, Patterson received a letter signed by more than 200 people — including 170 residents and 40 other commuters — requesting a formal review of the program.
Among those who signed the letter was David Salovesh, a local cycling advocate, who was killed while riding his bike on Easter weekend in 2019. Salovesh’s death prompted legislation to expedite improvements in the Florida Avenue NE corridor where he was killed. It also inspired sweeping road safety legislation that passed last September.
Rachel Maisler, an advocate who helped to gather signatures for the 2018 letter, said Thursday she hopes the investigation will identify barriers to lowering the rate of traffic deaths and lead the city to “course-correct and save lives.”
“My hope is that it will shine a light through the smoke and mirrors that have been the Vision Zero campaign,” she said. “For a program that’s goal is to lower traffic fatalities, it’s tragic and disturbing the number of deaths has been rising.”
Since Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) stood in the heart of Union Station on Feb. 20, 2015, to announce her embrace of the program and a promise to lead the nation’s capital into an era free of traffic fatalities, the District has seen record numbers of traffic deaths.
An increase in bicyclist and pedestrian deaths, in particular, has countered the aims of Bowser’s signature traffic safety initiative. D.C. had 37 traffic fatalities last year, up from 27 in 2019 — and the highest number of fatalities in a year since 2008. This year, 28 people have been killed in traffic incidents, according to D.C. police.
Among those killed this year was 5-year-old Allison Hart, struck as she was riding a bicycle in her Brookland neighborhood, and 4-year-old Zyaire Joshua of Northwest Washington, killed in April when he was struck at Georgia Avenue and Kennedy Street NW. Other traffic fatalities include 29-year-old Jim Pagels, a cyclist and safety advocate, struck in a chain-reaction crash downtown, and a 20-year-old Maryland resident riding a scooter.
The number of people killed in traffic incidents has increased year over year in five of the six years since the program launched. In 2019, the number dropped to 27. The traffic death count, however, has not fallen below 26, which was the toll before Vision Zero, in 2014 — putting Bowser’s aspiration to eliminate traffic deaths in 2024 further from reach.
City officials have attributed the rise to a national upward trend, a problem that transportation and law enforcement officials say has worsened during the coronavirus pandemic. Excessive speeding along emptier roads has been cited as a leading contributor to the toll in the past 18 months. Even as traffic has returned, data shows the pandemic has altered the dynamics of road safety.
Among the strategies the city has implemented in recent years to prevent traffic deaths are banning right turns on red and restricting left turns at some intersections. Pedestrians get more time to cross at some intersections, while new zones were added for delivery trucks and ride-hail drop-offs. Road users, including drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, who break traffic laws face higher penalties.
In a Sept. 17 letter to DDOT, Patterson sought documents related to the Vision Zero program, a list of safety investments made in the past three years and data about traffic fatalities and progress reports since the program launched in 2015. She said the audit will include interviews and an analysis of existing laws, regulations and policies and of the distribution of resources for traffic safety.
Patterson said the reason her office did not pursue an audit after the 2018 letter was to allow the program more time to develop, but she said it has been planning to launch the review for a couple of years. In preparation for the audit, staff members have interviewed safety advocates and city leaders in regard to concerns about traffic dangers.
Patterson said that as her office looks at Bowser’s “pretty ambitious goal of zero deaths” and determines the status of that vision, it may issue recommendations to DDOT, the administration and the D.C. Council.