Taking Stock Of Traffic Safety Efforts Across The Region About 180 people were killed on the region's streets this year, a number that will likely increase as more complete data becomes available.
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NPR logo Taking Stock Of Traffic Safety Efforts Across The Region

Taking Stock Of Traffic Safety Efforts Across The Region

D.C. traffic fatalities are down 20% in 2019, but officials say they are still unhappy with those figures. Nine pedestrians and two cyclists were killed from January to October. Jordan Pascale/WAMU hide caption

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Jordan Pascale/WAMU

For the first time in three years, traffic fatalities in D.C. are lower than they were the year before.

It's a small win in the years-long challenge to eliminate traffic deaths and serious injuries, known as Vision Zero, a goal that more jurisdictions have adopted in recent years. The initiative started in the 1990's in Scandinavia. Since then, jurisdictions all over the world, including locally, have adopted it.

Despite those efforts, few counties in the region have seen tangible progress, and most saw small changes in their numbers.

Roughly 180 people were killed on the region's streets this year, a number that will likely increase as more complete data becomes available.

The Data

Comparable data is difficult to find across the Washington region.

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Arlington County officially joined Vision Zero efforts this year. So did Prince George's County, which was the deadliest county in Maryland with nearly 100 deaths last year. That's double to triple the number of deaths in other jurisdictions across the region. Maryland adopted Vision Zero efforts in 2019.

In D.C., 25 people have been killed so far this year, down from 36 in 2018. Twelve pedestrians, eight drivers/passengers, three motorcycle drivers and two cyclists were killed on D.C. streets from January to November, according to DDOT's Vision Zero site.

District Department of Transportation Director Jeff Marootian says DDOT has been working hard to reverse the trend, but says: "Any fatality is one too many," Marootian says. "I'm pleased to see a reduction, but we still need to work hard to get to zero."

Indeed, there were big losses in the region: A 9-year-old girl was killed getting off the school bus in Bethesda; an 81-year-old hit and killed by a mail truck in Silver Spring; and a 17-year-old was killed while riding his bike on the sidewalk in Bethesda.

And Dave Salovesh, a cycling and Vision Zero advocate who "lived and breathed making the streets safe," was hit and killed while cycling on Florida Avenue.

Some road safety advocates say they feel like little has changed since D.C. adopted the goal in 2015.

Residents Weigh In On Vision Zero Efforts

By far the most agreed-on response to a question I posed online about this year's biggest Vision Zero wins and losses in the region was Salovesh's death.

Here's what other respondents said were big losses:

Other people found small wins in the midst of those losses:

D.C. Looks At Making More Changes

Marootian says DDOT has done many things that will hopefully add up to overall safety in all eight wards. The department increased the length of time pedestrians have to walk across the street at hundreds of intersections and banned right turns on red at 100 intersections.

DDOT also implemented "traffic calming" techniques, like putting up yellow pylons in the center of streets to slow down cars turning left — though they have been beaten up pretty badly. Marootian says these ideas are inexpensive and quick to deploy, but can have a big impact.

Speed limits have been reduced in areas with schools, recreation and senior centers. Fines have also increased for some of the most dangerous driving behavior.

DDOT has also said it will paint every crosswalk in the District in the coming years to make them more visible.

Bigger projects, like re-engineering complex and dangerous intersections, take more time. A major example of one such intersection is "Dave Thomas Circle," which is home to the Wendy's at the intersection of First Street Northeast, Florida and New York avenues Northeast.

Marootian says overall, traffic crashes and injuries are down at 16 of the top 20 worst intersections in D.C.

"Injuries are down ... some by as much as half," Marootian says. "We're looking at what's working and replicating it."

A Look At Trends Around The Region

At first blush, Prince George's County appeared to have a banner year. County police say there were 64 traffic deaths, down from 99 last year.

But Prince George's County Public Works and Transportation Director Terry Bellamy says there's an asterisk by that number. That's why the graph above has a dotted line for 2019.

"That doesn't have our state highway numbers," Bellamy says. "State police don't release their numbers [until later]."

Indeed, the deadliest stretch, Indian Head Highway, is in the state's hands. More speed cameras were installed there recently, Bellamy says. Long-term improvements include construction that will create interchanges and safer pedestrian crossing areas.

Prince George's County was among the last to join the Vision Zero efforts in the region; it joined this July.

Bellamy says residents will soon start seeing more "ladder style" paint on crosswalks instead of just two parallel lines. The county is also rolling out similar strategies seen in the region, like having more visibility in school zones and reducing right turns on red.

"The toolbox is nationwide," Bellamy says. "As part of the region, we all move together — Alexandria, Arlington, D.C ... we all talk."

Bellamy says he reviews traffic fatalities every morning.

"We live this every day," Bellamy says. "In order to get to zero, it's got to be each and every citizen in the region.

"Check your surroundings, slow down ... if you're a pedestrian, don't assume a car can see you. Look both ways, twice."

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