D.C. traffic deaths at 14-year high with low-income areas hardest hit

The toll has fallen disproportionately on the city’s two poorest wards, which recorded half of its road deaths in recent years

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D.C. police Lt. Sean Hill, center, places a sign along Q Street while walking with ANC commissioner Tiffany Brown, on left, and others to remind motorists of their speed.
D.C. police Lt. Sean Hill, center, places a sign along Q Street while walking with ANC commissioner Tiffany Brown, on left, and others to remind motorists of their speed. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Lower-income neighborhoods in the District recorded eight times more traffic fatalities in recent years than the city’s wealthiest area, an analysis shows, as residents call for more enforcement and road improvements following the deadliest year on city streets in more than a decade.

The 40 traffic fatalities in the nation’s capital last year were the most since 2007, fueled by what authorities say is a proliferation of unsafe driving during the coronavirus pandemic that reflects an alarming rise in traffic deaths nationwide. The toll has fallen disproportionately on the city’s two poorest wards, which contain less than one-quarter of Washington’s population but nearly half of its road deaths.

A Washington Post analysis of eight years of data shows wards 7 and 8, which are majority-Black and largely east of the Anacostia River, have borne the brunt of traffic fatalities and are home to the city’s deadliest traffic corridor. The rise in deaths comes seven years after the city launched a multipronged strategy to reduce traffic-related injuries and deaths — actions that have done little to stem the bloodshed.

The Post analyzed records obtained through the District Department of Transportation, D.C. police and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner that include cases investigated by D.C. police and U.S. Park Police. During those eight years, 2020 and 2021 — when driving rates were reduced during the pandemic — saw the lowest number of reported crashes but the highest rate of fatalities. About 10 people were killed for every 5,000 crashes, which is double the rate of 2019. One person has died so far this year.

Traffic deaths in the District

Majority share of population

by census tract

Black

Hispanic

White

50%

100%

Individual

traffic death

A little less than half of all traffic-related deaths happened in wards 7 and 8.

Southern Avenue is the deadliest street in D.C., where at least 18 deaths have occurred in the past eight years. Nearly 1 in 5 of 2021 traffic deaths occured along this corridor.

Traffic deaths in the District

Majority share of population by census tract

Black

Hispanic

White

50%

100%

Individual

traffic death

A little less than half of all traffic-related deaths happened in wards 7 and 8.

Southern Avenue is the deadliest street in D.C., where at least 18 deaths have occurred in the past eight years. Nearly 1 in 5 of 2021 traffic deaths occurred along this corridor.

Traffic deaths in the District

Majority share of population

by census tract

Individual

traffic death

Black

Hispanic

White

50%

100%

A little less than half of all traffic-related deaths happened in wards 7 and 8.

Southern Avenue is the deadliest street in D.C., where at least 18 deaths have occurred in the past eight years. Nearly 1 in 5 of 2021 traffic deaths occurred along this corridor.

The Southern Avenue corridor, which separates D.C. from Maryland’s Prince George’s County, accounted for nearly 1 in 5 traffic deaths in the city last year, The Post found. Among those killed were two pedestrians struck in the same block — one while crossing the street and the other a victim in a hit-and-run — about eight months apart.

Ward 3, which contains many of the city’s Whitest and wealthiest neighborhoods in upper Northwest, had no traffic deaths last year. Cases have often garnered more attention in wealthier areas, where advocates and residents are more vocal on social media, at vigils and during government hearings.

The spike is also occurring amid an increase in collisions involving children, which has inspired new legislation and brought calls for tougher consequences for unsafe drivers. Four-year-old Zy’aire Joshua was fatally struck in April as he crossed a street in the Brightwood Park neighborhood, and 5-year-old Allison Hart died while riding a bike in a Brookland crosswalk in September. At least five other children were injured while walking or riding bikes in recent months, including three on a single road in Southeast.

Road deaths nationwide have followed a similar trajectory, with about 31,700 fatalities during the first nine months of 2021 — a 12 percent jump over the same period in 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It’s the largest percentage increase in year-over-year fatalities since at least 1975, prompting the White House to embark on a multibillion-dollar initiative to boost road safety.

“It’s like, never there’s a day where I just go outside and feel safe,” said Ameen Beale, 38, a resident of Congress Heights in Ward 8, which also is grappling with a rise in crime. “It feels like bullets or cars, like, pick your day. If it’s not one thing, it’s the other.”

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Four of the five neighborhoods with the most deaths over the past eight years are home to majority-Black residents, according to The Post’s analysis, while at least 58 percent of victims citywide were Black — a number that’s likely higher because records in many cases don’t identify race or ethnicity.

By contrast, five majority-White and higher-income neighborhoods — Kent/Palisades, Chevy Chase, Barnaby Woods, Mt. Pleasant and Georgetown — had no traffic fatalities during the eight-year period. This analysis uses boundaries established by the D.C. Department of Health, which delineates 51 “statistical neighborhoods” for research purposes.

Wards 7 and 8, with a population that is about 90 percent Black, combined for 19 traffic-related deaths last year as Ward 3 had none. In the past eight years, Ward 3 recorded seven crash deaths, while wards 7 and 8 had 53 and 60, respectively.

DC traffic deaths by year

Vision Zero

launched

40

30

20

10

2014

’15

’16

’17

’18

’19

’20

’21

Traffic deaths by age

at least 44% of those who died were between the age of 20 and 40.

0

20

40

<10

10-19

20-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60-69

70-79

80-89

90+

Deaths by victim’s mode of

transportation

Pedestrian deaths made up nearly 40% of traffic-related fatalities.

0

50

100

Pedestrian

Driver

Motorcyclist

Passenger

Bicyclist

Scooter

Note: 15 victims do not have released ages.

Source: District Department of Transportation, D.C. police and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

THE WASHINGTON POST

DC traffic deaths by year

Vision Zero

launched

40

30

20

10

2014

’15

’16

’17

’18

’19

’20

’21

Traffic deaths by age

At least 44% of those who died were between the age of 20 and 40.

0

20

40

<10

10-19

20-29

30-39

40-49

50-59

60-69

70-79

80-89

90+

Deaths by victim’s mode of transportation

Pedestrian deaths made up nearly 40% of traffic-related fatalities.

0

50

100

Pedestrian

Driver

Motorcyclist

Passenger

Bicyclist

Scooter

Note: 15 victims do not have released ages.

Source: District Department of Transportation, D.C. police and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

THE WASHINGTON POST

DC traffic deaths by year

Vision Zero

launched

40

30

20

10

2014

’15

’16

’17

’18

’19

’20

’21

Deaths by victim’s mode

of transportation

Traffic deaths by age

At least 44% of those who died were between the age of 20 and 40.

Pedestrian deaths made up nearly 40% of traffic-related fatalities.

0

20

40

0

50

100

Pedestrian

<10

Driver

10-19

Motorcyclist

20-29

Passenger

30-39

Bicyclist

40-49

Scooter

50-59

60-69

70-79

Note: 15 victims do not have released ages.

80-89

Source: District Department of Transportation, D.C. police and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

90+

THE WASHINGTON POST

In Congress Heights, three children were injured while crossing Wheeler Road SE in recent months. A few blocks away on a walk through his Southeast neighborhood, Beale spotted a leaning electric pole with splintering wood, shattered glass and twisted metal — wreckage from an apparent crash. Nearby, the remnants of a red taillight sat askew near the sidewalk while a license plate lay in the street.

“It almost feels as though there is a culture of recklessness from people who interact with our community,” Beale said. “Running red lights, running stop signs.”

D.C. finds enforcement shortcomings as it grapples with rise in reckless driving

Transportation experts cite roadway design and a lack of investment in safety infrastructure as contributors to the disparity. Neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River have lagged financially in recent decades as other parts of the city saw infusions of money and people, with some transformed into more dense corridors that bring slower speeds. Road and transit improvements followed, building upon a public transportation system built to focus on Northwest and the downtown core.

In Southeast, many neighborhoods retain a suburban character, with homes spaced out and shopping centers built with large parking lots. Residents have access to fewer transit stations, and communities are split by busy commuter routes such as D.C. 295, Interstate 295 and the Suitland Parkway.

Charles T. Brown, an adjunct professor at Rutgers University and founder of Equitable Cities, a firm focused on equity in urban planning, said the data shows a pattern of inequity from decades of neglect and disinvestment in quality infrastructure in Black and Brown communities.

“It’s structural racism,” he said. “These communities have a disproportionate share of high-speed roadways. They have insufficient lighting for nighttime travel. They are bifurcated in service of the suburban communities and the travelers that are commuting to and from D.C. on a daily basis.”

Traffic deaths increased during the pandemic. The toll fell more heavily on Black residents, report shows.

Two highways that crisscross Southeast neighborhoods have among the city’s highest roadway death tolls in the past eight years: At least 10 people were killed on the Suitland Parkway and nine along the I-295 and D.C.-295 corridor.

‘There’s nothing you can do’

Barry Taylor, 47, was the last person to die in 2021 on the city’s streets, struck while crossing Southern Avenue midblock on a downhill stretch at Ninth Street SE. A sedan driver hit him on the chilly evening of Dec. 14. D.C. police said the case is under investigation.

His mother, Beverly Taylor-Clark, received a call from her daughter-in-law as she prepared for bed, then rushed from her Landover home to the trauma center at George Washington University Hospital.

“There was nothing else they could do,” Taylor-Clark said doctors told her. “I just kept hearing ‘there’s nothing you can do.’”

She had spoken to her son that morning, as she did most days. He had her name tattooed on his collarbone, and she still called him her “baby boy.” Taylor survived a shooting as a teenager in the 1990s. His mom often told him she would have taken the bullet for him.

“And now, a car takes him out,” she said.

The six-mile Southern Avenue corridor is long, straight and sometimes steep. Cars often travel above the 30 mph speed limit. Traffic also moves hurriedly in stretches where lanes narrow from two to one in each direction, passing brick buildings, rowhouses, single-family homes, a Metro station and the District’s only public hospital.

Southern Avenue had more deaths than any other major arterial road in D.C. in the past eight years, according to The Post’s analysis, tallying 18 victims. It was followed by New York Avenue NE with 12 deaths and Alabama Avenue SE with nine.

Ron Thompson, 23, a traffic-safety advocate who grew up in the Washington Highlands neighborhood off Southern Avenue, said he avoided crossing the road to get to the Southern Avenue Metro station on the Prince George’s side.

“It’s hilly. You go up and down that road and cars speed,” he said. “My mom was always telling the stories about how common and ubiquitous it felt having someone be hit by a car in our neighborhood.”

Of seven people killed last year in the corridor, two were pedestrians. The other victims were a driver, a passenger, a dirt bike rider and two motorcyclists — with police citing a high speed in some cases.

In the area that includes the Twining, Dupont Park, Penn Branch, Fairlawn and Fort Davis Park communities — spanning wards 7 and 8 and partly bounded by Southern Avenue — 24 people have been killed since January 2014. That’s the highest number among D.C. Health’s “statistical neighborhoods” during that period.

Residents and local elected leaders say roads are not pedestrian-friendly, lack well-marked crosswalks and have long stretches with no traffic signals, which create opportunities for speeding and make for unsafe crossings. In a quarter-mile stretch of Minnesota Avenue SE, from Nelson Place to Pennsylvania Avenue — where two people were killed in the past eight years — there are no traffic lights. Crosswalk signs are ignored. Residents have erected makeshift signs that read “Drive like your kids live here.”

In a 2020 resolution, the Advisory Neighborhood Commission in the area urged the city to tackle excessive speeding on the commuter routes that traverse its residential neighborhoods: Alabama, Branch, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Southern avenues. It asked for more indicators to alert drivers about their speed, re-striping of crosswalks and more speed cameras.

Police said a rise in fatalities stemming from impaired driving along Southern Avenue prompted an enforcement sting operation in December. Officials with the city’s Department of Transportation also have installed signs and cameras, said Tiffany Brown, who chairs the commission.

“But we need more,” she said. “All of our major thoroughfares are like speedways.”

Speeding, impaired driving at fault

Nearly three dozen neighborhood commissioners from the city’s eight wards signed a petition last month urging the D.C. Council expedite road improvements for pedestrians, including raised crosswalks, expanded school zones and more traffic enforcement.

More than 40 percent of those killed in the city since 2014 were between the ages of 20 and 40, and at least four victims were younger than 10, including the two high-profile cases last year in Brookland and Brightwood Park.

In Congress Heights, the city recently installed two speed cameras along Wheeler Road, where two children, ages 6 and 8, were struck on the way to school in October and a 9-year-old was seriously injured in December. New flexible posts form an arc around some street corners to encourage drivers to slow down. At the corner of Wheeler Road and Mississippi Avenue, some already have been damaged.

Drivers continue to have little regard for pedestrians, said Nia Jacobs, a crossing guard at the busy intersection used by students from four nearby schools.

“I never knew and I never paid attention to how these cars speed, and [how] they don’t care about people, because I drive,” Jacobs said.

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

Park View resident Vannya Ramos said her family is still waiting for answers about her brother’s death last year. Armando Martínez Ramos, 47, was making Uber Eats deliveries on his bike the morning of March 1 when he was struck by a shuttle bus, becoming pinned underneath at 10th Street and Michigan Avenue NE.

Martínez Ramos was in a crosswalk, police said, when the driver made a left turn and struck him. Vannya Ramos said the driver told police he didn’t see her brother. He died at a hospital, leaving behind four children. Police said the collision remains under investigation.

The five D.C. police investigators assigned to fatal crashes have been increasingly busy, authorities said, handling cases that can take years to close.

“These things get very complex,” said D.C. police Cmdr. Robert Glover, who oversees the department’s Major Crash Unit, which reviews vehicle technology and forensics and sometimes reconstructs crash scenes.

D.C. police made arrests in three of the city’s 40 traffic-related fatalities last year, while investigations are open in five cases. Arrests were made in eight of the 37 fatalities that occurred in 2020, police said, while three cases are unresolved.

In many cases involving single-vehicle crashes, Glover said, the conclusion is that the deceased person was at fault.

“We still investigate, but there’s nobody there to charge,” Glover said.

The two most common factors in D.C. traffic fatalities are speeding and impaired driving, police say. About 20 percent of fatal crashes involve impaired driving while up to 40 percent involve speeding — and some involve both. In other cases, about 20 percent of fatal crashes are the result of driver error such as distracted driving, Glover said.

Traffic camera records show vehicles often travel well above the posted speed limit along Southern Avenue SE, including a driver caught in June traveling five times faster than what’s allowed in a 25-mph zone.

In the 12-month period beginning February 2021, multiple speed violations were issued to Southern Avenue drivers traveling at least 90 mph, including a top speed of 127 mph. Over the same period, a red-light camera at Pennsylvania Avenue SE and Southern Avenue issued tickets to drivers traveling up to 116 mph in the 25-mph zone. By comparison, a traffic camera on Connecticut Avenue NW, in Ward 3, caught speeders reaching a maximum of 73 mph in a 25-mph zone.

Glover said some recent collisions involving pedestrians were partly the result of negligence, such as walking while impaired, or walking outside of a crosswalk or against the signal light. Fatalities involving pedestrians are more likely to occur at night, he said.

City officials attribute the rise in road deaths to a nationwide trend, which prompted the federal government to launch a plan this year to reduce speeding and protect walkers and cyclists. The move comes seven years after D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) launched a Vision Zero strategy that aimed to eliminate road deaths in the city by 2024 — a goal D.C. is further from reaching than when the program began.

A Washington Post poll this month showed 58 percent of city residents approve of Bowser’s handling of road-safety issues, including efforts to improve safety for bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists.

City transportation director Everett Lott said the target for no deaths isn’t shifting, citing the administration’s investments and policies that include lowering speed limits and increasing traffic camera enforcement and fines. He said the city will continue to retrofit roadways, including in wards 7 and 8, to make them safer for all road users.

Many of those changes aim to increase protections for pedestrians and bicyclists. The Post found that pedestrians made up about 40 percent of traffic-related fatalities since January 2014. Last year, 17 of 40 victims were pedestrians, while three were bicyclists.

Safety advocates and some residents are urging the city to remake car-centric streets, incorporating the needs of those on foot or riding bikes and scooters.

Taylor-Clark, who buried her son Dec. 29, said she wants the city to add streetlights or rumble strips — or use any other tool at its disposal — to slow drivers along Southern Avenue. She thinks about her last Thanksgiving with him, when she made his favorite stuffing and cheesecake.

“It’s just gonna take time to heal, if ever,” she said. “I know I’ll always miss my baby.”

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