Buckling up and buckling down: D.C. is failing on 2024 road safety goal

dctrafficmap-150x150Officials in the District of Columbia must match commitment to candor if they hope to achieve a long-promised goal of reducing the terrible toll on area roads.

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged in 2015 to reduce traffic fatalities in the district to zero by 2024 — a goal she has conceded her administration has “fallen short” on and will struggle to meet. As the mayor noted in her updating of her “Vision Zero” safety initiative, the Washington Post reported quoting Bowser:

“Our original target of achieving zero deaths by 2024 was ambitious and has not been without its challenges.”

The newspaper tallied where the mayoral ambitions meet hard data:

“Fatal crashes have been trending up since Bowser made the pledge in 2015. The increase has come alongside the administration’s push for stricter traffic rules, including reduced speed limits, more speed cameras, and higher fines for traffic violators. The city recorded 40 traffic deaths last year, a 14-year high, up from 26 deaths in the year Bowser launched Vision Zero. So far this year, 26 people have been killed in traffic crashes in the city, down from 36 at the same time last year, D.C. police records show.”

The Bowser administration says it will keep trying to hit its optimistic target of zero fatalities, the Washington Post said:

“The Vision Zero report, issued by the District Department of Transportation, promises actions and resources over the next two years with a focus on high-crash corridors. The plan calls for more traffic cameras, a reevaluation of speed limits in more corridors, an expansion of the DDOT traffic-patrol program, and the deployment of more police to school zones during arrival and dismissal times. The Bowser administration said the city also will shift more resources and attention to address equity concerns, noting that more traffic fatalities occur in Wards 7 and 8 — areas that also have the city’s highest rates of poverty. A Washington Post analysis earlier this year found that nearly half of traffic deaths last year were in those two wards, which contain less than one-quarter of the city’s population.”

The mayoral wobble on D.C. road goals, of course, provided cause for critics to assail the District’s performance on safety issues, the newspaper reported:

“Residents and advocates for traffic safety for years have criticized the city’s commitment to the [Vision Zero] program, citing perceived shortcomings in the speed at which the city is embracing safety changes. Some critics say the efforts have been too focused on adding automated enforcement and fines, and in making driving conditions more difficult while yielding few benefits to pedestrians and non-drivers. Others say the city has been too slow to target aggressive drivers or redesign streets prone to speeding.”

Bowser and allies, however, say that the district’s progress is demonstrable, with fatalities falling from their 2003 peak of 69, and the local efforts keeping in step with nationwide campaigns to roll back serious traffic injuries and deaths.

The Associated Press reported in May on the startling situation involving vehicle wrecks, injuries, and deaths:

“Nearly 43,000 people were killed on U.S. roads last year, the highest number in 16 years as Americans returned to the roads after the coronavirus pandemic forced many to stay at home. The 10.5% jump over 2020 numbers was the largest percentage increase since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began its fatality data collection system in 1975  … Preliminary figures released … by the agency show that 42,915 people died in traffic crashes last year, up from 38,824 in 2020 …Forty-four states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had increases in traffic deaths in 2021 compared to the previous year, led by Texas, California and Florida .. Americans drove about 325 billion more miles last year, 11.2% higher than in 2020, which contributed to the increase. Nearly 118 people died in U.S. traffic crashes every day last year, according to the agency’s figures.”

Later in 2022, the news and information site Axios reported this about the latest available data on vehicular fatalities and injuries from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

“Overall, U.S. traffic deaths increased 0.5% during the first half of 2022, in comparison to the same period in 2021 … Approximately 20,175 people died from traffic accidents during the first half of 2022 — the highest number of deaths during that period since 2006. Preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration also shows that vehicle miles traveled during the first half of 2022 increased by about 43.2 billion miles, or 2.8%.”

Axios also noted this in its news article:

“The number of deaths from traffic accidents declined during the second quarter of 2022 — after seven consecutive quarters of year-to-year increases, [NHTSA] said.”

Officials greeted as good news the dip in vehicle wrecks in 2022. But NPR also has reported that bicyclist injuries and deaths have spiked to distressing levels, as have fatal and injurious incidents involving pedestrians, Axios says:

“Pedestrian deaths reached a 40-year high last year, according to preliminary data from the Governors Highway Safety Association … Drivers struck and killed more than 7,400 people in 2021, and the percentage of children killed by speeding drivers more than doubled since 2018.”

In my practice, I and my colleagues see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage inflicted on pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers by motorcycle, vehicle, and truck wrecks. The country had made significant progress in reducing road harms but the positive trends reversed in recent years and went off the rails during the pandemic.

We are all now to too vulnerable to the personal, medical, and financial havoc that can result when we just happen to step into an intersection when a careless motorist decides to speed through, or when we are riding home at night and an intoxicated driver loses control. We have an individual responsibility to right this wrong. We can slow down (as the district has encouraged us to do by reducing speed limits). We can redouble our caution for pedestrians and bike riders. We can use the many, effective safety devices in our vehicles, notably seat belts and other restraints.

We can do our part to ensure we don’t drive while distracted — especially while texting or using electronic devices — drunk, drugged (with recreational or prescription drugs), or otherwise impaired, especially by sleepiness. We can return to the fundamental idea of reciprocal altruism by restoring basic courtesy, consideration, and concern for others. This means we take to heart the idea that we won’t, and neither will others, engage in reckless, aggressive conduct behind the wheel — flouting common sense laws, speeding, and ignoring stop and other signs.

While we must hold officials accountable for their promised, increased road safety plans — whether at the local or federal levels (and much has been promised nationwide) — we have much work to do to slash road injuries and deaths.

Patrick Malone & Associates, P.C. listed in Best Lawyers Rated by Super Lawyers Patrick A. Malone
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