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In D.C., residents raise alarms over rise in drivers striking children

The recent collisions involving children are part of a deadly rise in crashes on city streets

A crossing guard helps people cross the street Thursday along Wheeler Road SE near Eagle Academy Public Charter School, down the street from KIPP DC Honor Academy. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Peter Dziekan was riding downhill on 21st Street NE, his green backpack on his shoulders, with his mother and younger brother about 20 feet behind.

As he approached Gales Street NE in the Kingman Park neighborhood, the 9-year-old saw a clear road ahead. He slowed the bicycle as a precaution, which he was taught to do at the intersection on rides to and from school.

“I looked to make sure a car wasn’t coming and then they came around the corner at about 50 miles an hour and just hit me, and didn’t care that they hit me at all,” Peter recalled of the Dec. 10 hit-and-run that left him bruised and with 18 stitches.

Another 9-year-old was struck and seriously injured that same afternoon as he walked out of school and crossed Wheeler Road in the Congress Heights area of Southeast Washington. Kaidyn Green was in critical condition on life support Thursday, family attorney Keith Watters said.

Those collisions and reports of at least four other children being struck on the streets of the nation’s capital in the past week have left residents and neighborhood leaders pleading for tougher consequences for unsafe drivers. Parents are imploring road improvements that protect children. Elected leaders are pushing road safety legislation.

“We already knew that the roads aren’t always safe for kids and that there are some drivers who just don’t care to follow the rules, but the extent to which kids seem to keep getting hit in the city is really alarming,” said Colleen Costello, an advisory neighborhood commissioner representing the Michigan Park and Brookland neighborhoods in Northeast Washington, where a 5-year-old girl was fatally struck while riding her bike three months ago. “It feels like a huge gut punch.”

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The collisions involving children are part of a deadly rise in crashes on city streets. The District has recorded 40 traffic fatalities this year, three more than occurred in all of 2020, and it is poised to end the year with a 13-year high in deaths. City data shows more than 4,000 people have been injured.

To some residents, the city isn’t acting fast enough to fight reckless driving behaviors plaguing city streets, as social media videos emerge almost daily of drivers running stop signs and speeding through 20 mph streets. They say the city isn’t building safer streets fast enough to protect children walking in their neighborhoods.

Calls for enforcement, speed bumps and raised crosswalks go unanswered for years, neighborhood commissioners said. Others say the city has become too reliant on speed and red-light cameras to enforce traffic laws. City records show about $500 million in unpaid fines from traffic citations amid complaints they do little to deter traffic offenders.

Among those killed this year was 5-year-old Allison Hart, who was struck in a crosswalk while riding her bike in Brookland in September. Five months earlier, 4-year-old Zyaire Joshua of Northwest Washington was killed while crossing the street at Georgia Avenue and Kennedy Street NW.

About half of traffic-related fatalities this year in D.C. involved people walking or riding a bike. While the rise in deaths this year isn’t unique to Washington, it counters Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) street-safety strategy that promised to end traffic fatalities by 2024.

“Frankly, it feels like we’re hustling backwards,” D.C. Council member Christina Henderson (I-At Large) said. “At this point, we need action. We need more infrastructure improvements in terms of how we design our roads, particularly around schools and recreation centers, and not just a reliance on automated traffic enforcement cameras to get people to slow down.”

D.C. lawmakers this week introduced legislation that would expedite pedestrian improvements in school zones and across the city, with council member Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1) citing “an unabated crisis of pedestrian fatalities.”

Twelve council members on Thursday pushed legislation to improve safety around schools, which would require a traffic signal or all-way stop, raised crosswalks and curb extensions at every intersection adjacent to a school. The bill, introduced by Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), also would expand school zones and boost enforcement of traffic rules in school zones.

That bill came a day after Nadeau introduced a bill to fast-track the installation of raised crosswalks across the city, which advocates say increases the visibility of pedestrians. Under the proposal, co-signed by eight other members, the District would be required to embrace “designs for continuous sidewalks, raised crosswalks, and raised intersections” into its standards within 180 days of the legislation becoming law.

“Raised crosswalks and intersections will, by design, slow drivers down. We know that these types of traffic-calming measures make our streets safer,” Nadeau said. “By creating a new standard, we will be taking a more proactive and equitable approach to pedestrian safety.”

The safety features would be required in contracts for paving or resurfacing of streets, and installation or reconstruction of sidewalks.

The proposals follow calls from advocates and ANCs for such measures, including more midblock speed humps, curb extensions and four-way stops to slow cars.

“These are all things that we would love to see standardized,” Costello said.

The District Department of Transportation in recent weeks has deployed more crossing guards to schools and crews to make adjustments at intersections with high-visibility crosswalks, city transportation chief Everett Lott said. He said DDOT installed more than 100 speed bumps in the past two months and this week deployed five new speed cameras. Seventeen new cameras announced this week will also be deployed more quickly, Lott said.

Two weeks ago, Bowser announced that D.C. police were increasing traffic safety patrols around some schools to stop dangerous drivers.

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City transportation teams have been deployed to locations where youths have been struck in the past week and are analyzing conditions and potential fixes.

In the 3300 block of Wheeler Road SE, where Kaidyn was struck Friday after leaving KIPP DC Honor Academy — two blocks from where a car struck a parent and two children on “Walk to School Day” in October — two new cameras went up this week.

ANC Commissioner Salim Adofo said DDOT has worked on safety measures in the corridor for months, with plans advancing to reduce the number of travel lanes from two to one in each direction. Two new traffic signals, speed bumps and speed cameras in recent months have not stopped the problem, Adofo said, citing three crashes in the past week.

Last week’s crash remains under investigation, but police said the driver stopped and is cooperating with the investigation. They said the boy was not in a crosswalk.

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Students in blue uniforms and carrying bookbags filed out of the school Wednesday afternoon as parents grabbed the hands of children and walked them to the crosswalk at Savannah Street and Wheeler Road SE. Adults, one with a black jacket that said “security,” stood at the school’s entry and exit to assist during dismissal, watching cars whiz by. A crossing guard greeted families as they approached, placing her hands in both directions to stop the cars.

Neighbor George Taylor said he has tried to speak to city officials about setting up temporary stop signs, which he said could prevent drivers from speeding up the hill.

“It’s a never-ending battle,” Taylor said. “Hopefully, they’re going to come out and make some significant changes.”

Watters said Thursday that Kaidyn is on life support and awaiting surgery on Friday.

“He can’t have any movements other than his eyes right now,” he said. “If he survives, he will be severely disabled.”

D.C. pledged to cut traffic fatalities by 2024. Deaths are up, and now the program is under audit.

In Northeast Washington, Peter said he is lucky he was in the hospital for only eight hours after being struck by a speeding driver on the way home from Two Rivers Public Charter School. A video posted on social media shows an SUV speeding around a turn and striking the boy. Peter is seen flying off the bike, then immediately getting back up and running to his mother, who was biking behind him.

The car sped away in the school zone, witnesses said. Peter’s father, Zeek Dziekan, said the family is hoping progress in the investigation leads to an arrest. The family is also asking for more traffic safety measures along the route.

“I couldn’t really think what was going on because it just hurt so much,” said Peter, who was taken to a hospital by ambulance. The crash won’t stop him from riding his bike to school, he said, but he wants people to be more careful.

“I want people to drive safely,” he said, “because I don’t want other people to be in pain like this.”