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Residents push for policies to bring deaths to zero
The streets of Washington, D.C., are relatively safe for pedestrians, according to a report released on Tuesday by the advocacy group Smart Growth America, but residents say the District should enact an aggressive policy to change dangerous road and intersection designs toward a goal of zero fatalities.
From 2003 to 2012, crashes killed 133 pedestrians in the District, more than a third of all traffic-related fatalities. It is unclear how many of the deaths occurred on arterial roads that are eligible for federal funding for safety improvements, the report said. Nearly 70 percent were killed on streets with a posted speed limit under 30 miles per hour.
While D.C.’s pedestrian fatality rate was higher than the national average (2.2 per 100,000 residents compared to 1.5 nationally), the District’s streets are among the safest in the nation when the proportion of pedestrians who walk to work is factored into the equation. Still, some residents question whether it makes sense to compare a city of 600,000 people to states like Vermont and Alaska, where there are few if any places of high population or pedestrian density.
“It’s not good enough, particularly for the people who get hit,” said Joe Riener, a retired school teacher who is considering forming a pedestrian rights group.
Riener has been living on Ingraham Street Northwest in the 16th Street Heights neighborhood for 33 years. Just over the last few years, as the District’s population has swelled with new residents who walk, bike, and use transit to commute, he has noticed near his home an increasingly dangerous situation at the intersection of 14th Street Northwest and Colorado Avenue Northwest.
Although the Smart Growth America report does not indicate any pedestrians were killed at the intersection between 2003 and 2012, Riener says its layout is an example of the kind of unnecessarily dangerous designs that lead to tragedies.
A mid-block bus stop of the western side of 14th Street Northwest tempts pedestrians to scamper across four lanes of car and bus traffic. Crosswalks north and south of the bus stop are too far away for people to bother using them, Riener said.
“I've sat at the benches here many times,” Riener said during an interview at the intersection. “I just watch people, just how they behave. They run across the street here and weave their way between cars to make sure they can get across to catch the bus.”
Riener believes an easy fix like better signage would not solve the problem.
“What needs to happen are mechanical solutions, a pedestrian island in the middle and perhaps even a pedestrian-activated traffic light,” he said. “In the past five years it has gotten much more dangerous because there are many more people in the city now.”
Riener is not a transportation engineer and does not claim to be an expert, but says that is why the District Department of Transportation exists. He says both elected officials and DDOT engineers are moving too slowly toward redesigning roads to accommodate more than just motorized traffic.
“We have to have an ethic in our society that any time there is an [pedestrian] accident we figure out ways to prevent future accidents,” said Riener, who said D.C. should adopt the attitude of the aviation industry toward airline crashes: none are acceptable.
“A lot of officials have the mentality that the issue of transportation is to get cars moving as quickly as possible through the city,” Riener said. “It would be much better if DDOT really understood we have to readjust the relationship between cars and pedestrians and bicycles, focusing on the safety of people instead of two-ton automobiles that might crash into them.”