Posts about Road Safety
Read part 1 on DC's proposed fines and part 2 about how traffic cameras could be more swift, certain, and fair.
Though raising traffic fines might not deter lawbreaking, people often feel a harsh punishment is appropriate anyway for the most egregious acts. Here's one man who was about the worst driver ever. What if he had to spend 23 years making roads safer rather than sitting in jail?
One common response to criticism about the proposed higher fines was that they will also take the most dangerous drivers off the streets. Suspending a license for a repeat offender is the sort of punishment that should be much more common. Sadly, many jurisdictions are reluctant to take away driving privileges because people have few alternatives. But in DC, there are alternatives to driving.
Beyond the valuable tool of license suspension, however, greater punishments may also not achieve much. It's understandable to feel that if people are driving 55 in a 30 mph zone, or if they door or hit cyclists, they deserve anything that's coming to them. They've done something obviously very dangerous and/or done actual damage. Why not punish these people severely?
While it may make us feel better, we just know that it doesn't actually stop the next person. It didn't work for the "tough on crime" efforts of the 1990s, and while traffic safety isn't the same thing, but there's also not a lot of reason to believe this approach will work here.
To think about this more, let's look at one of the most egregious examples out there, a former Google sous chef named Nicola Bucci. I worked at Google, but didn't know him personally; he worked there after I'd moved to New York, but I know many people who did know him.
In 2006, Bucci hit another car and killed two children while speeding in the wrong lane of a road on a hill in Fairfield, California, northeast of San Francisco.
In case this doesn't make him seem unsympathetic enough, Bucci had actually killed two people before, on I-80 in the Sierra Nevadas in 1994, where he fell asleep at the wheel. He'd been convicted of vehicular manslaughter and done some jail time then.
A jury convicted Bucci of murder for these two deaths, and now he's in prison serving a 23-year sentence.
Is this just?
In some sense, that feels good, since he's killed more people than some serial killers. But other than the possibility of taking him off the road so he personally doesn't kill anyone else, the roads aren't getting any safer because of it.
Has the press around the case in California (some articles here and there) made people drive less when tired? Probably not much. Is there anything about Bucci's experience that is reminding California drivers day in and day out about the dangers of driving tired? No.
Clearly, Bucci should not be allowed to drive again, but his privileges should have been revoked after his first conviction. If he had to spend 23 years going around to every driver's ed class in the state telling his story or something, that would achieve quite a lot more.
Oh, and the state's road engineers were responsible, too. Another jury in 2011 found Caltrans 35% responsible for the crash because of the road's unsafe design. The state had to pay $29 million to the victims, and only then did it put in a divider.
Meanwhile, Bucci's family is suffering, and some of his former coworkers have been trying to help him get his sentence overturned. Those friends are not working to help educate people about the lessons of Bucci's experience to make the roads safer. Ideally, they would be.
It's understandable to want to punish people who do terrible things, but people drive tired, don't yield to buses, speed, and park in bike lanes all the time. To make an example of one or two of the worst offenders just lets society feel better and then ignore all of the lessons of the incident.
We need better road design, lower speed limits, license revocations, and "certain, swift, and fair" enforcement to make roads safe. If jail time or (getting back to part 1) high fines get people to change behavior, then by all means let's do that, but absent evidence, it seems like a way to feel that we're working on the problem instead of actually solving it.
Most people would say they favor harsher punishments for drunk driving. But when it comes to keeping impaired drivers off the road, the most important thing is having laws that work.
During testimony at a recent DC Council Transportation Committee hearing in favor of laws to eliminate road deaths, Mothers Against Drunk Driving State Legislative Affairs Manager Frank Harris supported increased use of ignition interlock devices, which are mechanisms that test the driver's blood alcohol level and keep a car from starting if the driver is under the influence.
The District barely uses its current ignition interlock program. Right now, only nine people in the District have one, which is a much lower rate than in Maryland or Virginia. Harris said relying on the devices more would be more effective than current penalties.
Revoking licenses, Harris said, is a "hope for the best" policy: there's a risk DWI offenders will drive anyway. With interlock devices, there's a higher chance offenders drive soberly.
The bill currently being proposed for DC would require two-time offenders and offenders with particularly high blood alcohol concentrations to use a device. According to Harris, if DC were to require all DWI offenders to install an interlock device for at least six months, a federal incentive grant from NHTSA of around $200,000 could cover the cost of the program.
25 other states, including Virginia, have such a requirement for first-time offenders.
Interlock devices cost a little less than $3 a day. While most people who are ordered to use interlock devices have to pay for them, most states require manufacturers to provide devices to people who can't afford them, a model DC could emulate.
This morning, DC officials released their plan for Vision Zero, the campaign to eliminate all deaths on the roadways. It lays out analysis about crashes and strategies to make roads safer.
The Vision Zero team collected a lot of data about actual crashes, and also asked people online and at events where they felt unsafe. For pedestrian safety, the most crashes are (not surprisingly) downtown where there are lot of pedestrians. However, people seemed to talk about some other places where the road design or other factors might deter them from walking, like Pennsylvania Avenue SE and the Hill East area.
For bicycling, respondents seem to have talked a lot about places like the 15th Street protected bikeway, where a lot of people are riding and drivers frequently block the box at corners, but crashes happen in some other real hotspots like Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road.
Driving crashes basically seem to happen everywhere people drive, in approximate proportion to how much traffic there is. Drivers seem to be concerned on H Street/Benning Road NE and in a variety of trouble spots in places like Takoma and Petworth. South Capitol Street, Barney Circle, and a lot of spots on Capitol Hill also got many mentions.
More than half of pedestrian and bicycle deaths happened in the 15 high-crash corridors in this map. (Much of the traveling happens there too, so this isn't a huge surprise). But these identify places where changes could have the most impact.
This map shows where camera tickets happen in relation to crashes. There are a few very high-ticket cameras in spots, like the K Street underpass under Washington Circle, but it's not clear from this map that the locations correlate that much with danger spots.
What to do about this?
The report lists a lot of strategies to reduce and eliminate road deaths. You can read them all in the report, but here are a few highlights:
- Fill sidewalk gaps on 40 blocks.
- "Install or upgrade" 20 miles of bike lanes and bikeways. At least five miles would be protected bikeways.
- Build two "protected intersections" as a pilot project. This concept was proposed for New Jersey Avenue and M Street, but wasn't put into effect.
- Create an Urban Design Unit in the Office of Planning. Have it redesign some dangerous public spaces to be safer and also more inviting.
- Pilot some lower speed limits, including two major streets with 25 mph limits, two neighborhoods with 20 mph limits, and some 15-mph limits around schools and other spots with youth and seniors.
- Revise the manual engineers use to design streets so that it mandates designs that accommodate all users, not just cars. There would also be a Complete Streets law requiring this. Mandate that a road's "design speed" as well as the speed limit are right to ensure the street is safe, rather than designing a fast street and posting a low speed limit.
- Organize some "hackathons" to get residents engaged in analyzing safety data and devising solutions.
Increased enforcement, especially against unsafe behaviors, is another real focus. One area the plan calls out is U-turns through bike lanes, dooring, passing cyclists too closely, and other dangerous behaviors around cyclists. It also recommends enforcing good behavior for everyone around work zones and parking garages.
It will be the responsibility of DDOT and other agencies going forward to turn this plan into actual action on the ground. That will require residents continually pushing agencies and also insisting that politicians take the principles seriously.
What do you think about the plan?
The DC government has committed to "Vision Zero," a goal of eliminating all road deaths. A detailed plan from the Bowser Administration will come out Wednesday, but in the meantime, legislators have been putting forth their own proposals for laws around safety.
Four bills in the DC Council about road safety proposals were the subject of a hearing on December 8. Here's a rundown of what they will do.
This bill, introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson, would increase fines for people who repeatedly engage in distracted driving. Anyone with three violations within eighteen months would get his or her driver's license suspensded and points on the license.
Today, first-time violators who purchase a hands-free device do not face any fines; the bill would end that waiver.
Speakers at the hearing were broadly supportive. Many asked whether or not it went far enough. Both the District's Bicycle Advisory Council and Washington Area Bicyclist Association expressed interest in expanding a ban on driving while using a hands-free phone device (it's illegal for all road users to use a handheld phone). That ban now applies to school bus drivers and novice drivers; witnesses suggested adding drivers in school zones and construction zones, or preferably all drivers at all times.
Others asked that the bill include more provisions for education about distracted driving. (Disclosure: I am acting chair of the Bicycle Advisory Council and testified on its behalf for this bill.)
Earlier this year, Mary Cheh, chair of the council's transportation committee, convened a working group of advocates to discuss potential changes to the law around road safety. The group reached consensus on a number of changes, which are in this bill. Some of the key provisions would:
- Require the government to regularly publish data on crashes, sidewalk closures, citizen petitions for for traffic calming measures, dangerous intersections, and moving violations.
- Instruct the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to create Bicycle and Pedestrian Priority Areas (at least one per ward) with no right turns on red, lower speed limis, and more human and camera enforcement.
- Let cyclists slow down and yield rather than stop fully at stop signs.
- Write a Complete Streets policy into law. (DDOT has one today, but just as a directive of the DDOT Director which can be revoked at any time.)
- Create a curriculum on safe cycling and walking for schools; require taxi and other for-hire drivers to go through training on bicycle and pedestrian safety.
- Apply the laws for motor vehicle insurance to bicycle insurance, and allow bicycle insurance providers to require policyholders to register their bikes.
- Impose larger fines on repeat violators (up to five times the fine for a fourth offense) for violations including speeding, blocking a crosswalk, and illegal stopping or standing including in a bike lane (sorry UPS!)
- Allow aggressive driving citations for drivers who commit three or more or a set of violations (like speeding or improper lane changes). This which carries a penalty of $200 and 2 points and mandatory driver education.
- Forbid using a phone in the car when not moving.
- Require side under-run guards, reflective blind spot warning stickers, and either blind spot mirrors or cameras on all heavy-duty vehicles registered in DC. This is currently the law for District-owned vehicles.
- Create a Major Crash Review Task Force to review major crashes and recommend changes to reduce the number of them.
Much of the discussion for this bill focused on the fact that it does not lower the speed on residential streets, a proposal which the working group discussed but didn't reach consensus on. WABA had several proposals for ways the bill could go farther to create safer streets.
Some witnesses opposed pieces of the law. Several were uneasy about letting cyclists yield at stop signs.
The Metropolitan Police Department's representative argued that the law was primarily about convenience and might, in an urban environment, lead to more crashes. In response, Councilmember Elissa Silverman asked if there was any evidence that it might lead to more crashes, and MPD conceded that there was none. Mary Cheh cited a recent study showing that crashes dropped 13% in Boise following the passage of a similar law in Idaho.
Insurance industry representatives said that this law would need to be coupled with a dedicated education effort. One witness from the insurance industry also objected to regulating bicycle insurance.
This bill comes from Mayor Bowser and is a companion to the forthcoming Vision Zero plan. Like the Safety Act, it would also mandate a Complete Streets system. Like the Distracted Driving Act, it would increase fines and add points for distracted driving violations.
In addition, it would enhance penalties for operating all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes on District roads and require ignition interlock devices for repeat DUI offenders and high blood alcohol content (BAC) first-time offenders.
While supportive, WRAP, MADD and AAA all suggested that the bill instead require interlock devices for all DUI offenders, as 25 states do now.
In addition to the legislative changes mention above, both Cheh's working group report and the Vision Zero action plan recommended regulatory changes, some of which have been addressed by proposed rules that the Bowser administration proposed Friday.
These rules would:
- Require side underrun guards for certain vehicles.
- Require drivers to clear damaged but operational vehicles from the travel lanes.
- Require drivers to yield to buses merging into traffic.
- Designate certain streets as neighborhood slow zones with a maximum speed limit of 20 miles per hour (and near high-risk areas like playgrounds, as low as 15 mph).
- Add points for several offenses such as overtaking another vehicle stopped at a crosswalk or intersection for a pedestrian.
- Increase fines for infractions such as driving more than 30 mph over the speed limit (including possible jail time), running a stop sign, driving on the sidewalk, unsafely opening a door into traffic, or striking a cyclist.
- Break the violation for parking in a bike lane into two categories, one for commercial vehicles and one for non-commercial vehicles, and raise the fine from $65 to $300 and $200 respectively.
Mary Cheh told the Washington Post she wanted to make sure "the mayor has authority" to raise the fines and asked, "Is there data that supports that this is something that will deter people from speeding? Otherwise people would think this is just a money raiser."
What else could be done?
In addition to formal changes to the law and regulations, the working group recommends other steps District agencies could take to improve safety. Some of these recommendations include:
- A universal street-safety education program for all elementary school students (which has already gone into effect).
- More automated cameras for enforcement.
- Greater "no right turn on red" restrictions in bike and pedestrian priority areas.
- Distributing more free bicycle lights.
- Equipping large District-owned vehicles with audible turn warnings.
- Providing more information about bicyclist insurance.
Traffic heading north on I-95 out of DC can test even the most patient traveler. The next time you're headed to Philadelphia, New York, or Boston, you might want to say a little prayer to Our Lady of the Highways, a roadside memorial in Childs, Maryland, north of Baltimore.
You'll find Our Lady of the Highways on I-95 northbound in Cecil County between exits 100 and 109, near the underpass for Blue Ball Road. On a foggy night in October 1968, there was a horrific 17-car crash at this spot, which killed three people. The Oblates, a group of priests, erected the statue in 1968 (and replaced it in 1986) to commemorate the tragedy and encourage other drivers to be more careful.
One of the biggest dangers of riding a bike is drivers who pass way too close. This video uses people who clearly don't get the concept of personal space to illustrate what a safe passing distance is and is not.
In DC, Maryland, and Virginia, the law requires that drivers give cyclists three feet of space when they pass. California has that law too, which led to the Santa Rosa Street Smarts program creating this video.
In it, examples of people getting way too close to a guy as he's going through everyday life activities like sitting at the movies, riding an elevator, and, most awkwardly, relaxing in a hot tub. "You don't get this close in person," the spot says. "So don't act like this when driving. Give people on bikes room to ride."
A video like this should be required watching for everyone obtaining or renewing a drivers' license.
A lot of people want to make Vision Zero a reality, ending preventable deaths on our streets. An often-overlooked barrier to making that happen is blind spots on our buses that leave people using the street at risk because drivers can't see them. The good news is that fixing the problem is both easy and inexpensive.
Essentially, all transit buses in the United States are built as cheaply as possible, with mirrors and pillars that create blind spots that are over a foot wide. That's too large for even the best-trained driver to reliably overcome, meaning people who share the street with buses are at risk. Since 2000, well over 500 people in the US have died because of this problem.
When policymakers invest in safe streets and pedestrian crossings, as well as dedicated lanes for transit and bikes, everyone benefits. Safety efforts like well engineered Vision Zero and safe street programs are no-brainers.
I work in the transit industry, where those of us who support effective Vision Zero campaigns talk about the path to safety being the classic checklist of the "three E's:" it starts with engineering, which is followed by education, and only last comes enforcement.
In the case of these blind spots, policymakers have failed at the highest level: engineering. If we want to end fatalities, safe street engineering must not end at the curb.
On modern buses used in New York and DC, for example, the typical pillar and mirror, which are as wide as a legal pad at arm's length, are directly in line with pedestrians in left turns. Over a dozen pedestrians can disappear behind a blind spot so large:
To compensate for the hazard, bus operators are taught to "bob and weave" or "rock and roll" in their seat. This means swaying nearly 20 inches, attempting to see around the widest pillar and mirror. Imagine doing that several times in every turn. Tragically, a moving operator and moving pedestrian can still remain unable to see each other. Additionally, poor cab design (like the huge steering wheel) confines all but tall operators, in some cases leaving them unable to lean more than a few inches.
Also, while safe bus mirrors are used in a few systems, most North American designs widen the blind spot and directly block the driver's view of people walking in the street.
We can fix this problem, and for cheap
Larry Hanley, the president of the largest transit union in North America, has said these safety and engineering failures transform buses into "mobile manslaughter machines."
One solution is to simply mount mirrors lower so that drivers can still see people walking in the street while also being able to monitor surrounding traffic. King County Metro in Seattle has already adopted the ATU-recommended design, a move that has saved numerous lives.
Similarly, structural changes are easy and inexpensive. In the case of the bus above, the engineer who designed it told the ATU that eliminating the blind spot between the windshield and side glass would cost less than $300: the fiberglass would just need trimming and the window seals would need to be out of critical sight lines.
The result? A smaller blind spot than in your car!
Change is not convenient, but in this case it is not difficult. Designs from 60 years ago were significantly safer, lacking these blind spots.
Changing buses means changing laws and culture
Unfortunately, North American manufacturers have chosen, at least for the moment, to stick with the status quo, a decision that saves pennies for themselves and transit procurement departments but costs lives.
Currently, neither the bus designers nor agency decision makers are being held legally responsible. Instead, that burden falls on drivers facing charges including manslaughter, while having no say in continuing purchases of unsafe vehicles, when excellent designs, as seen here, are ignored.
In DC, ATU Local 689 and ATU International have presented detailed findings about these local hazards and these low-cost solutions to WMATA and DDOT, both of which plan to procure more buses in the near future. Neither agency has committed to blind spot elimination in their procurement process.
As the truth of this unacceptable hazard and bloodshed it leads to become more broadly known, liability will eventually drive change. Public pressure from informed transit advocates can make repeating these mistakes uncomfortable for those selecting future fleets.
It is our hope that as riders, advocates, and workers awaken to the benefits of Vision Zero, they will demand that Mayor Bowser and the WMATA Board make these simple fixes. The welcome attention being paid to rail safety needs to also go toward Metrobus and DC Circulator service to help all of us move closer to zero fatalities on our streets and in our transit system.
The safety of bus riders, operators and people using the street should not rely on driver gymnastics or luck, and it need not continue to.
This map shows where people have been caught speeding in Montgomery County this summer. If DC and other local jurisdictions released more open data, we could make maps like this for places all over the region.
Speeding citations in Montgomery County and how much each was exceeding the legal limit. Map by the author.
Montgomery County now publishes detailed traffic violation data, which goes online daily here. This data allows anyone to see where and when the police are issuing citations, and to whom.
The map covers the period from June 1st to August 16th in Montgomery County. The bigger the bubble, the more the driver was over the speed limit and the bigger their violation.
What is open data and why is it useful?
The data I used to make the map is a good example of local jurisdictions providing open transportation-related data. Open data is data that is readily accessible and manipulable by anyone who wishes to use it in whatever way they wish to do so.
Making the large amounts of government data more available allows people to more easily participate in government. In terms of transportation, open data can allow residents to identify traffic patterns and safety problems.
We're making progress with open data, but there's a ways to go
Our region has made good strides in recent years to make government data more accessible to the public, including some transportation data. This has led to people developing innovations like CaBi Tracker.
After months of internal meeting, DDOT recently kicked off the public portion of its Vision Zero initiative. This effort includes an innovative crowdsourcing effort to map dangerous streets and intersections. (If you haven't contributed, you can do so here.)
DDOT has gone a step further and posted this data in an open data format online. This allows anyone to download and manipulate the data to understand what people have said about transportation safety throughout the District.
On the other hand, apart from Montgomery County, no jurisdiction posts violation data or sidewalk closure data and few post crash data.
In DC specifically, the crash data that's available isn't very useful when it comes to analysis. For example, this crash statistics report that came out in March 2014 covers crashes that happened between 2010 and 2012, meaning it took some crashes four years to show up in a public form. The District will release the actual data used to write the report, but it's not easy or obvious how to get it. To improve things, DC's Vision Zero effort includes making transportation data more open, although it is not yet clear when or how this will happen.
At present, though, the District's open data on 311 calls (which is excellent) means that it's easier to find out the location of roadkill than it is to find where people have been hit (see map below).
Improving this situation would cost little but do a lot to improve services and accountability for our region's residents.
Building on my map, for example, more data from Montgomery could enable someone to compare citations to speed gun surveys and collision data, to see if speeding enforcement is matching the location of speeding and crashes. More data could also be used to help identify places where design changes or automated enforcement could be considered to alleviate the number of police officers required to enforce speeding laws.
With ever more jurisdictions making serious commitments to improving street safety, now is the time to make more transportation data open to the public.
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