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D.C. Lacks The Crash Data It Needs To Pursue 'Vision Zero'

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Illegal U-Turns have plagued the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track — the District’s most visible bike lanes.
Martin Di Caro/WAMU
Illegal U-Turns have plagued the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track — the District’s most visible bike lanes.

“I’d never been hit by a car before.”

Alex Keckeisen commutes 24 miles round-trip on his bicycle, decked out in cycling apparel and helmet. Since moving to the District a couple years ago, the 27-year-old consultant has taken advantage of the city’s expanding network of bike lanes, traveling between D.C. and Alexandria every day.

But his commute took a turn for the worse on June 2 at about 6:30 p.m. as he pedaled down the Pennsylvania Avenue median cycle track in downtown Washington.

“All of a sudden this Camry just swooped around and pulled a U-turn to go the other direction. I ended up going into the rear quarter panel. I flipped up onto it and somehow landed on my feet,” said Keckeisen, who strained his back and slightly damaged his bike.

The crash report filed with the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) indicates the driver was charged, but the precise citation is not mentioned. Keckeisen said it was for something other than the actual violation of an illegal U-turn, a problem that has plagued the District’s most visible bike lanes since they opened in the Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest median five years ago.

DDOT's "safety map" shows a clear concentration of incidents along Pennsylvania Avenue.

Waiting on DDOT

His crash took place on one of the two remaining blocks where the District Department of Transportation still has not installed rubber barriers — known as wheelstops or park-its — to protect bike riders from illegal U-turners, between 13th and 15th Streets Northwest outside the John A. Wilson Building.

In recent weeks, bike commuters have taken to social media to report a rash of crashes and near-misses. Keckeisen said he emailed District officials and members of the D.C. Council about the safety issue, but only one responded: Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), the chair of the council’s transportation committee.

“I think the evidence shows quite clearly that this is a dangerous section of the road for cyclists,” said Cheh, who commutes on a bike herself. “And I see it happening all the time. I see taxis. I see other drivers. It is stunning to me that they don’t comply with the law."

The council member has pressed DDOT to finish the installation of the rubber barriers that were put in place along 10 blocks of the Pennsylvania Ave. cycle track in May.

“I don’t think you need months and months and months and months and months to study that,” she said.

The larger issue: lack of data as D.C. pursues Vision Zero

Since announcing it will adopt a Vision Zero program to eliminate all traffic fatalities by 2024, DDOT created a crowd-sourced “safety map” online where road users can report incidents. The map of Pennsylvania Avenue NW is dotted with multiple reports of crashes and near-misses involving cyclists and cars.

“Last Thursday I was riding down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House at about 5 p.m., was right here in front of the Wilson Building, and a car actually drove right into the bike lanes here and pulled a U-turn,” said Laura Bennett, 26.

This and other near-misses have scared her away from cycling each day to work.

“I personally have input my incidents that have happened along Pennsylvania Avenue into the online database,” Bennett said in an interview at the corner of 14th and Pennsylvania Ave. downtown. “If you select it and look at this particular intersection, there are multiple bubbles citing the exact same thing.”

Inadequate crash reporting

While providing a snapshot of traffic activity across the District, the online “safety map” is only the start of a move toward compiling more comprehensive data to help DDOT determine which streets and intersections are the most dangerous and why. But safety advocates contend the MPD does not provide the precise data necessary to assist traffic engineers tasked with implementing road diets.

In a policy paper distributed to the mayor’s office, D.C. Council, DDOT, MPD, and Department of Motor Vehicles, the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) outlined the inadequacies with the police department’s current crash reporting form, which does not meet standards established by multiple federal safety agencies, known as Model Minimum Uniform Crash Criteria (MMUCC).

“The MPD’s PD-10 crash intake form has several deficiencies that make it difficult for police officers to capture accurately the important details of a crash involving a pedestrian or bicyclist,” the policy paper said.

For instance, the crash reports do not specify “the location of a non-motorist with respect to the roadway at the time of the crash (i.e. whether the non-motorist was on the sidewalk, a cycle track or bicycle lane, or the road), the action of a bicyclist immediately prior to the crash…the impact point at which a vehicle struck a bicycle,” and whether the bicyclist was wearing reflective clothing, using lights, or wearing a helmet, the policy paper said.

In an interview, Greg Billing, WABA’s new executive director, said D.C. must follow the lead of other Vision Zero cities to collect comprehensive data, publicize the location of crashes on a weekly basis, and integrate crash reports with medical records to determine why certain roads and intersections lead to the most serious injuries.

“We don’t have enough data. The MPD’s crash report is not in compliance with national standards,” said Billing.

Also, many minor crashes go unreported altogether. Typically a police officer will not file a report if there is no serious injury or property damage.

“It’s like the [crashes] never happened. All of that is data the city doesn’t have and is making incorrect conclusions about how to make our streets safer,” Billing said.

WAMU 88.5 requested an interview with D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier but a department spokeswoman said she was not available.

“Our policy is similar to major cities around the country; major city police departments do not take reports in every crash,” said spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump in a statement.

Lane barriers are on the way for the remainder of the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track. (Martin Di Caro/WAMU)

Change is coming

The District Department of Transportation has formed four working groups to address the implementation of Vision Zero. One is tasked with improving data collection.

In an interview with WAMU 88.5, DDOT director Leif Dormsjo said the MPD is committed to upgrading its crash reporting to comply with MMUCC standards.

“We’re really thrilled that in the future we are going to get much more granular information,” Dormsjo said. “We are always striving for better information, and one of the limitations in the reporting is there isn’t adequate coverage of pedestrian- and cyclist-related injuries and crashes.”

“Getting more information will make it a lot easier for us to prioritize our initiatives and our programs. The fact that the police department is modernizing their reports and bringing them in line with new federal standards is really positive for us,” Dormsjo said.

While the District’s streets are considered relatively safe, advocates and officials agree too many fatalities are taking place.

So far this year 14 people have died in crashes in Washington. Last year, there were 26 fatalities: 12 vehicle drivers or passengers, 10 pedestrians, and four bicyclists or motorcyclists. In 2013 there were 29 fatalities: 15 vehicle drivers or passengers, 12 pedestrians, and two cyclists, according to data provided by DDOT.

Back to the Pennsylvania Ave. bike lanes

DDOT intends to install the bike lane barriers between 13th and 15th Streets in September, Dormsjo said, finally protecting the entire length of Washington premier downtown cycle track.

“The particular roadway characteristics along Pennsylvania Avenue on the 1300 and 1400 blocks required a little bit more deliberation because we didn’t want to create a false impression for motorists or cyclists,” Dormsjo said. “It wasn’t a straight forward installation like the rest of the blocks.”

DDOT has been studying whether to allow U-turns at certain intersections where left turns currently are legal on Pennsylvania Avenue. However, Dormsjo said only recently did his agency learn that allowing U-turns anywhere in the city required a change to the D.C. code.

DDOT may legalize U-turns at 13 ½ Street outside the Wilson Building simultaneous to the installation of the bike lane barriers in September.

“We wanted to avoid the channeling of cars and the perception that it was allowable to do a U-turn if there were gaps in the wheelstops installation,” Dormsjo said.

Along most of the median cycle track, the wheelstops are bolted down every few feet inside painted boxes on the asphalt. But between 13th and 15th Streets, the striping is laid out differently, requiring a change so that the wheelstops are not spaced too far apart.

D.C. Crash Data Policy Paper (July 2015)

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