City Council approves package of measures to increase safety of DC streets

dcstreet-300x199Officials in the nation’s capital have approved a broad-based plan to crack down on the dangers that motorized vehicles pose to pedestrians, cyclists, other drivers, and whole neighborhoods.

The District of Columbia City Council acted in response to spiking fatalities and injuries — harms that have increased not only locally but nationwide, as the Washington Post reported, noting this has been “a troubling national trend that became even more pronounced this spring and summer during the pandemic shutdowns. People were driving less, but [road] crashes were more deadly.”

Even as DC Mayor Muriel E. Bowser has pushed her “Vision Zero” road safety plan, the newspaper reported:

“[An] increase in bicyclist and pedestrian deaths has hindered progress … So far this year, 29 people have been killed in traffic crashes compared with 16 at the same time last year, an increase of about 80%. With three months left in 2020, more people have died on D.C. roads this year than in all of 2019, when 27 people were victims of traffic crashes.”

New measures may upset motorists

The district’s safety measures, including the already imposed cutting of the default speed limit on city streets to 20 mph from 25 mph and a “slow streets” initiative in which some neighborhood byways are restricted to local traffic with a posted speed limit of 15 mph, may hit bumps with motorists.

The AAA Mid-Atlantic opposed aspects of the DC Vision Zero bill, including its ban on right turns on red, the Washington Post reported, noting critics claim “That prohibition … could create other hazards because vehicles would be moving or turning at higher speeds to make the green light.”

To be clear, the district bill “bans turning right on red at more intersections, including those within 400 feet of a school, recreation center, library, playground, Metro station entrance, or with a bike lane running through it. The original bill called for a citywide ban on right-on-red turns.”

Vision Zero, which calls for increases in red-light and stop sign enforcement with automated camera-ticketing systems, will push district officials to work harder with their government counterparts across the region to seek better enforcement of road safety measures, the newspaper reported, adding:

“The legislation requires the mayor to negotiate agreements with Virginia and Maryland to ensure drivers from those states face consequences when they break traffic laws in the city. For example, under such agreements, registrations and driver’s licenses of Maryland and Virginia drivers could be suspended if they accrue District traffic fines of a certain threshold. Maryland and Virginia would receive a percentage of the fines recovered as compensation. Roughly 90% of outstanding parking and photo citation debts in the District are owed by vehicles registered out-of-state, and 72% of those vehicles are registered in Maryland and Virginia, according to the city. The bill also requires warning notices be mailed to drivers caught exceeding speed limits by 8 or more miles per hour. Currently, fines are issued only to those traveling above the 10-mph threshold.”

The full roll-out of the safeguards envisioned in the district’s latest road-safety program may not occur as swiftly as advocates hope, because the Covid-19 pandemic has put huge stresses on government services and the district’s budget. City officials aren’t certain what programs will cost, such as stepped up traffic enforcement, especially in poorer areas most harmed by road risks, required reviews or risky intersections and streets, and new rules mandating that “sidewalks be installed on both sides of a street, and establish[ing] hefty penalties — up to $16,000 daily — for contractors that fail to install sidewalks, bicycle lanes and marked crosswalks after completing work.”

Bowser’s office still must review the council bill to see if the mayor will sign it.

The DC Council also is working on new laws governing e-scooters, a popular means of transportation pre-pandemic that officials think may become even more widespread as fears of the coronavirus and commuting lead car-weary commuters to consider options besides hard-hit bus and rail routes.

In my practice, I see not only the harm that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on them and their loved ones by wrecks involving pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, cars, and trucks.

Even before the pandemic, our vehicles had started to turn deadly again, plateauing after the nation saw spikes in deaths and injuries on the roads as had not occurred for a long period in which huge progress was made in reducing vehicles’ harms.

Even as region recovers, individual actions matter

Residents in the DMV — the District, Maryland, and Virginia — have kept in step with national trends, as mentioned, with road travel slashed as Americans stay home and work from there more as part of efforts to reduce Covid-19’s deaths and infections. Still, with fewer people out and about and roads more open, speeding and vehicular mayhem persisted as a problem, even with greater severity in some ways.

The crush of traffic slowly has increased and is approaching pre-pandemic levels in many areas, particularly as Americans who once relied on mass transit have felt the need to try to protect themselves more from coronavirus infection by buying cars and driving as they did not before.

It may not be until the summer of 2021 that the region returns to fuller normality with workers in offices and business in the area and racing every day to get there.

Still, it is past time for all of us to step up our awareness and safety efforts whether we’re on the road with two feet or two or more wheels. Please put the cellphone down and don’t text — while walking or driving. We all need to avoid dangerous distractions that can put us and those around us in peril, whether we’re in noisy conversation, jamming to loud music, or taking part in any activity that prevents us from focusing on what’s going on in front of us on the street or highway. We also need to be careful in moving around when we’re tired and sleepy or intoxicated, including being under the influence not only of alcohol, marijuana, or other drugs but also prescription medications.

A big sign from the other coast about cars and trucks

We also may wish to take note of what’s going on in the trend-setting automobile capital of the country: California. There, Gov. Gavin Newsom has just signed an executive order phasing out gasoline-powered cars and ordering medium- and heavy-duty trucks to be zero-emission by 2045. As the Los Angeles Times reported of these climate change- and health-related steps with vehicles:

“In the next 15 years, we will eliminate in the state of California the sales of internal combustion engines,” Newsom said at a news conference in Sacramento … “If you want to reduce asthma, if you want to mitigate the rise of sea level, if you want to mitigate the loss of ice sheets around the globe, then this is a policy for other states to follow. Newsom’s executive order calls ending the sale of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035 a ‘goal,’ but it also orders the [state] Air Resources Board to immediately begin drafting regulations to achieve it by that year. The governor acknowledged that not everyone would embrace the 100% zero-emissions mandate but emphasized that nothing in his order would prevent Californians from owning gas-powered cars or buying or selling them used. ‘We’re not taking anything away,’ Newsom said. ‘We’re providing an abundance of new choices and new technology, being agnostic about how we get to zero emissions, but being committed to getting to zero emissions by 2035.’”

We’ll have to see how California, other states, the federal government, and the auto industry respond to Newsom’s bold step. But what he and DC officials have made clear is that we have much sustained work to do to ensure our vehicles work for us, not only to get us around but also to benefit our safety, health, and well-being.

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