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D.C.’s traffic safety strategy lacked funding, oversight, audit finds

The city did not make adequate investments in Vision Zero amid an upward trend in traffic fatalities, a new report says

Demonstrators briefly take over a busy D.C. street to demand better safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. (Fredrick Kunkle /The Washington Post)
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The District’s traffic safety strategy has been hampered by a lack of funding and oversight, according to an audit by the Office of the D.C. Auditor that cited unmet goals and increases in road deaths in recent years.

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) failed to adequately fund her Vision Zero initiative, announced in 2015 in a pledge to eliminate traffic deaths by 2024, the audit says. After ineffectively launching the program, the audit said, the number of fatalities rose in nearly every subsequent year. Traffic deaths reached a 14-year high in 2021, when 40 people were killed on D.C. streets.

“The Bowser Administration failed to follow the ambitious announcement in 2015 with appropriate resources in both funding and manpower,” D.C. Auditor Kathy Patterson said in a statement.

The investigation into how the District Department of Transportation has implemented the Vision Zero policy and whether resources have been allocated equitably is a response to criticism from residents and safety advocates who say the city lacks a commitment to the program. An increase in traffic deaths has come alongside the administration’s push for stricter traffic rules, including reduced speed limits, more speed cameras and higher fines for traffic violators.

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

The audit found that while Bowser’s budget included funding for the program starting in 2016, major investments were not requested until three years later with the creation of a Vision Zero Division, which took another year to fund.

Patterson said commitments have “improved significantly” in the months since the audit launched in 2021, but that came after six years without an updated action plan. In the fall, the District announced a revamp of the program, laying out measures to improve road safety while also acknowledging that it had “fallen short” in its work to prevent traffic deaths.

A second audit focusing on enforcement strategies by police, and the departments of Public Works and Transportation, is underway, the D.C. auditor said. It also will evaluate the city’s use of photo enforcement.

D.C. says it has ‘fallen short’ of goal to end traffic deaths

The report said Vision Zero’s success was hindered as the city delayed creating the program’s bureaucratic infrastructure and made no financial commitments to support a package of sweeping road-safety measures approved by the D.C. Council in 2020. Still unfunded, the report said, are initiatives to speed the installation of crosswalks and bike lanes, and improve public outreach and traffic control at intersections.

The report makes 21 recommendations and urges the Bowser administration and the D.C. Council to fully fund Vision Zero efforts. Among the recommendations are establishing procedures to measure progress, including setting annual targets and assessments, while also allocating more staff members to the efforts. It calls for quarterly accountability reviews to ensure agencies have the financial and staffing resources they need to implement Vision Zero.

In response to the audit, Deputy Mayor of Operations and Infrastructure Lucinda M. Babers and Transportation Director Everett Lott said they agree with the report’s recommendations, adding, “we already have processes in place that address each of them.” The city disputed several of the report’s findings, including its assessments of workforce resources assigned to the program.

Lott and Babers acknowledged the ambitious target of achieving zero deaths by 2024 has not been without challenges, noting similar trends in cities nationwide. But they pointed to some success, including in the use of data analysis to prioritize investments. The addition of speed cameras and other safety measures last year at Wheeler Road SE, where the city recorded severe crashes — including one involving a 9-year-old boy who died months later — led to a roughly 80 percent reduction in speeding citations, they said.

The District “is beginning to see the fruits of many traffic safety initiatives started within the past eight years,” they said.

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The city recorded 35 traffic deaths last year, five less than the previous year’s record — a toll that hit the city’s lower-income neighborhoods hardest. The numbers are up from 26 deaths in the year Bowser launched Vision Zero. So far this year, nine people have been killed in crashes in the city, D.C. records show, including three men who were killed Wednesday when a sedan they were in was struck on Rock Creek Parkway by an SUV fleeing a traffic stop.

An increase in bicyclist and pedestrian deaths, in particular, has countered the goals of Bowser’s signature traffic safety initiative. More than half of last year’s victims were pedestrians.

“The current state of traffic safety is unacceptable,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), who chairs the council’s transportation committee. “We have solutions that we put on paper, but we have not put them into practice.”

A critic of the administration’s handling of traffic safety, Allen said he hopes DDOT and other agencies charged with the safety of road users will prioritize projects in areas that bear the brunt of traffic fatalities, including neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. The audit report, he said, will inform the council in upcoming budget discussions.

In an October Vision Zero update, the city promised actions and resources over the next two years with a focus on high-crash corridors. The plan called for more traffic cameras, a reevaluation of speed limits in more corridors, an expansion of DDOT’s traffic-patrol program, and the deployment of more police to school zones during arrival and dismissal times.

The District in recent years has launched policies that include 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.

Safety advocates and residents say the frequency of deadly crashes illustrates a growing problem. They cite reckless driving, speeding, a lack of enforcement, and insufficient infrastructure for people on foot, bikes and scooters.

Patterson said her office received a letter signed by more than 200 people — including 170 D.C. residents and 40 other commuters — requesting a formal review of the program.

Lott said in a statement the city appreciates the report’s recommendations and will continue to improve its Vision Zero initiative while working toward a goal of zero deaths.

“This goal has been a challenge not only for D.C., but for every other major U.S. city that has adopted Vision Zero,” he said. “Nevertheless, DDOT remains dedicated to building a strong multiagency approach that prioritizes engineering, education and enforcement.”

The audit found that while DDOT conducted safety studies to identify the most dangerous roadways, it didn’t incorporate those results into a database to target, track and document traffic safety investments.

Reckless driving classes, expanded traffic cameras among D.C. plans for bad drivers

Program initiatives also lacked dedicated funding from the start, the report said. It noted that the plan was initially budgeted at $500,000 for fiscal year 2016, and that amount was not updated for years as the city failed to calculate the real costs of implementing the safety changes.

“DDOT staff indicated that it is difficult to identify the cost of achieving the overall goal of Vision Zero,” the audit said. “Without estimating the cost to implement Vision Zero, the District cannot measure its impact, and gather information key for the budget process to ensure funding is adequate.”

Rachel Maisler, an advocate who helped to collect the signatures needed to request the audit, said she is not surprised by the findings. In her neighborhood of Petworth, she said, residents have been asking for years for improvements of various intersections with no action.

“This report just proved that it’s been nothing more than a smoke-and-mirrors campaign until this point,” she said. “There is very little political will behind the Vision Zero campaign. If this was actually a priority, the mayor would have funded Vision Zero, she would have prioritized safe streets.”

Among the report’s recommendations, DDOT was urged to better communicate to residents — especially in neighborhoods that have requested traffic studies and mitigation — on any progress on their requests.