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Posts about Road Safety


Proposed rules aim to get serious about road safety in DC

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.

Photo by Jonathan Warner on Flickr.

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.

Enhanced Penalties for Distracted Driving Amendment Act of 2015

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.)

Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act of 2015

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.
You can read a complete list of changes here.

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.

Vision Zero Act of 2015

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.

Regulatory changes

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.
Since these changes are coming in regulations from the Bowser administration and not a bill in the DC Council, there is some conflict about whether the increased fines will be effective, and whether they're even allowed.

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.
After becoming a campaign issue in the last mayoral election, District leaders have been busy this year, through multiple efforts, in working towards that goal.


In rural Maryland, a saint watches over drivers

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.

Photo by cranberries on Flickr.

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.

Our Lady of the Highways isn't the only transportation-oriented saint. There are also patron saints for cycling, air travelers, and motorcyclists, among others.


California is using this cheeky video to encourage safe driving

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.


Many buses have built-in blind spots that make driving them dangerous

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.

Huge blind spots on left turns lead to far too many pedestrian deaths. All images by the author.

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:

A stunning safety failure; only the driver's arm is visible.

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!

Current European designs incorporate the structural changes recommended

Change is not convenient, but in this case it is not difficult. Designs from 60 years ago were significantly safer, lacking these blind spots.

A 1960's bus from GM lacking 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.


When governments make road data public, anyone can help make roads safer

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.

DDOT made its Vision Zero Map data open. Image from DC Open Data.

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).

DC currently provides better data on roadkill than crashes with humans. Image from DC Open Data.

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.


Crowdsource safety problems on DC streets with this interactive Vision Zero map

Do you know of a safety problem on a DC street? If so, tell DDOT about it using the interactive Vision Zero map. It allows residents to click a location and type in notes to describe problems.

Image from DDOT.

This new map is part of DC's Vision Zero Initiative, which aims to eliminate all fatalities and serious injuries in the transportation system.

The map lets you add notations for a wide variety of safety problems. There are separate categories for driver, pedestrian, and cyclist problems, with several options available for each. You can also scroll around DC to see what your neighbors have submitted.

It's a neat tool. I've already submitted a handful of problems.


Residents push for stop signs, not a wider road, at one Petworth intersection

In April, two cars collided at Kansas Avenue and Quincy Street NW. Crashes at the intersection aren't uncommon, and residents and ANC commissioners are asking for a four-way stop.

Kansas and Quincy NE. There are stop signs for people driving east and west on Quincy, but there are none on Kansas. Base image from Google Maps.

The two-block section of Kansas that meets Quincy is a wide, tree-lined street. Aside from at Quincy, there's an all-way stop at each street Kansas meets between Georgia Avenue and 13th Street. Quincy, by contrast, is a narrow street that connects the 14th Street corridor to the Georgia Avenue/Petworth Metro station.

There are stop signs for drivers traveling east and west along Quincy, but Kansas is only marked by two crosswalks and a couple of battered "Yield to Pedestrian" signs.

Poor visibility and speeds make crossing difficult

Kansas Avenue intersects Quincy at an angle, and people park cars along both streets, and traffic on Kansas moves quickly in both directions. Southbound drivers take advantage of the wide straightaway to drive downhill quickly and pass through a convoluted series of nine intersections. Northbound traffic cruises through the long green light on 13th Avenue and keep going fast as they make a wide right turn onto Quincy.

To cross, drivers must inch their way into the intersection so they can see enough to account for all these factors. It is no surprise local drivers avoid using this intersection.

People looking to walk along Quincy to get to the Metro, however, have no choice but to cross Kansas. Despite pedestrian crossing signs, drivers often don't yield to people waiting to cross, and even when the road looks empty, that can change quickly when drivers turn off 13th and fly up the hill.

The sister intersection, Quincy and 13th, couldn't feel more different. People driving cars obey the all-way stop signs and cross Quincy quickly and easily, and people on foot step out towards the Metro or 14th Street shops feeling safe.

Neighbors want a four-way stop sign

Following the most recent crash, the neighborhood renewed its push for a stop sign. Residents started requesting all-way stop signs more than ten years ago, according to ANC 4C06 Commissioner Vann-Di Galloway.

In an email exchange on April 1, 2015, a neighbor who observed the immediate aftermath of the collision wrote,

I just don't believe that this intersection is somehow the only one in 4C06 that manages to elude that designation, but that's what they keep telling us. For years now we've been pushing them to make it a 4-way stop, like EVERY other intersection is, but they keep trying other traffic tools, and frankly none of them do enough. That intersection won't be safe for drivers, cyclists, or pedestrians until it is a 4-way stop.

In a May 21st meeting with city officials, neighbors reiterated their longstanding concerns regarding pedestrian and vehicle right-of-way conflicts. Residents at that meeting also expressed serious doubts that DDOT's proposed solutions, which stop short of an all-way stop, would address the central safety concerns.

All-way stops have not ruined traffic patterns along Kansas Avenue or 13th Street. Why would this intersection be any different? Either the street is busy, so drivers and pedestrians attempting to cross need traffic controls, or the street is not that busy, so stop signs wouldn't cause a problem.

DDOT doesn't want to add a stop sign, but that could be for lack of information

In recent years, DDOT conducted studies where Quincy Street intersects both 13th Street and Kansas Ave NW. The agency helped create a four-way stop at Quincy and 13th, which is just 50 feet away from Quincy and Kansas and used to have similar troubles.

Gregg Steverson, from DDOT's Transportation Operations Administration, stated in a March, 2014 email to local residents that "based on standard volume and roadway classification" neither of the Quincy Street NW intersections met the warrants for all-way stop.

Additionally, Mr. Steverson expressed DDOT's concern that if an all-way stop went in, drivers may miss or ignore the stop sign in their rush toward visible green lights at the intersections at at Kansas, 13th, Spring, and Quebec.

DDOT never followed through on a commitment to examine the effect of the new 13th and Quincy stop signs. In meetings, residents expressed confusion as to why DDOT considers hypothetical non-compliance by some drivers as a criteria that weighs against traffic control devices.

Residents also noted that DDOT's studies of Kansas and Quincy have looked at the intersection between 10 am and 2 pm, a time window that might not accurately represent just how many people cross Kansas on foot. Finally, vehicle and pedestrian traffic volumes may be lower—particularly on Quincy—precisely because this intersection is so difficult to cross.

Residents don't want wider roads

One solution Mr. Steverson proposed was to remove parking spaces from along Kansas Avenue to improve lines of sight. Commissioner Galloway has responded to DDOT that this proposal would further tighten parking in a growing neighborhood and also widen the roads, which could increase the untenable speed of traffic.

Neighbors have pledged to continue their push for an all-way stop as long as necessary. They are hopeful that Brandon Todd's office will help make progress on this neighborhood priority before more people get hurt or property ends up damaged.


A woman died crossing a street in Glover Park last night

The intersection of Wisconsin Avenue, Calvert Street, and 37th Street NW is dangerous. On Thursday evening a truck driver struck and killed a woman there.

The scene a few hours after the crash. Photo by the author.

There isn't much information yet on exactly what happened or why, and is too soon to jump to conclusions. Some rumors on the Glover Park listserv say that the driver was turning left and did not obey a red arrow. This has not been officially confirmed.

The intersection, looking south from Wisconsin Avenue. Image from Google Maps.

This isn't the only crash involving a pedestrian on Wisconsin Avenue this week or the only fatality on the roads in the region just on Thursday. A car driver injured a pedestrian on Wednesday at Wisconsin and Veazey Street, in Tenleytown. A Montgomery County school bus driver struck and killed a woman crossing a street on Thursday morning near Shady Grove Metro.

Wisconsin Avenue could have been different

Not long ago Wisconsin Avenue went on a diet. DDOT put in a median, added a turn lane, and slowed the traffic. In some parts of the avenue it sometimes took an extra two minutes to drive up the road.

Residents complained. Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans complained. Councilmember Mary Cheh, the Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners at the time, and DDOT bowed to the popular outcry and reversed the change.

In the evening, Glover Park residents talked in person and on email lists about what happened. Some people quickly jumped to assumptions about what the pedestrian may have done. Some assumed she may have not been in the crosswalk and others that she may have walked against the light.

But did the street design contribute? Could the truck driver see adequately? Did he turn left or right on red? Was he driving too fast?

We don't yet know the details of what happened, so we can't say whether the road diet would have helped avoid this tragedy or not. But we do know that a move to make Wisconsin Avenue safer in the past was overturned because drivers wanted to be able to move faster through this neighborhood.

Even if the driver violated another law, like going through a red light, the point of designing streets for safety is to ensure there is more margin for error. Drivers (and pedestrians) won't obey every law at every moment. One violation on either side shouldn't lead to death, especially since it's always the pedestrian's.

In aviation, there's a maxim that any fatal plane crash is always the result of not one, often not two, but multiple things going wrong—a tired pilot AND bad weather AND an otherwise-minor equipment glitch AND a communications mix-up. Without any one of those failures, everything is fine. That's a system where safety is a higher priority. On the roads, a single mistake by a driver can kill an innocent pedestrian.

Correction: The initial version of this article quoted a WUSA9 story which interviewed a man who said the intersection was dangerous. However, this interview actually was about the other crash, at Wisconsin and Veazey. We have removed the quotation.

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