In this 2019 file photo, protesters held small squares with numbers–one for each of the 128 people killed since Vision Zero began.
The Office of the D.C. Auditor will undertake a 10-month investigation into the work of the District's Vision Zero program, the city's flailing effort to eliminate traffic deaths and major injuries by 2024.
While the District Department of Transportation has implemented a number of interventions, the numbers are stark: D.C. hit a decade high of 37 traffic deaths last year, despite record low traffic numbers.
Mayor Muriel Bowser adopted the goal in 2015. Since then, the city has seen an increase in deaths every year, except 2019. The city's trajectory largely mirrors national trends, including in seeing an increase in fatalities during the pandemic. Fatalities have been cut in half since the turn of the century when D.C. had 72 deaths, but the trend has since leveled off.
DDOT has made changes like reducing local streets to 20 mph speed limits, banning right turns on red lights in many intersections, building more bike lanes, taking over the Automatic Traffic Enforcement camera program, evaluating high crash areas, and other efforts to curb deaths. The Council also passed a sweeping Vision Zero safety bill but has largely gone unfunded by the Mayor's office.
It's unclear how those changes may have saved lives, but people are dying on the District streets, including several children in recent months.
Safety advocates argue that DDOT isn't going far enough to create safe conditions and doesn't want to inconvenience drivers. DDOT did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
The audit will include interviews with staff, an analysis of applicable laws and regulations, and a look at program data and reports.
Auditor Kathy Patterson said the Vision Zero program has long been on her docket after a 2018 letter signed by hundreds of safety advocates, including Rachel Maisler, Matthew Sampson, and Dave Salovesh, who was killed on his bike by a driver in a vehicle just a year later in 2019.
"If the Mayor-backed initiative created to eliminate traffic fatalities is not working, we want to know why and to what extent it's costing DC taxpayers," the letter reads.
Patterson said they wanted to wait a few years so the program had time to develop, "but it's an incredibly important topic, and obviously, a huge amount of community interest."
The office is requesting a number of documents and datasets for fiscal years 2019-2021, including a list of traffic fatalities and DDOT responses, a list of traffic safety assessment requests, federal funds received and spent, policies and procedures, and org chart and progress reports.
"We'll be looking at the broader issue of what has the District of Columbia done since the initiative in 2015, in terms of trying to address safety on our streets," Patterson said. "Yes, we're going in the wrong direction. It merits looking at what exactly is it that we are doing."
ANC 4B01 Commissioner Evan Yeats, who sits on a Vision Zero committee, said the program is the right idea "that has tragically been on the wrong track for a while."
Maisler says she "hopes this audit will shine a light through the smoke and mirrors that have been impeding the potential of the Vision Zero program."
"We deserve to know why pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers are not safe on D.C.'s roads," Sampson said. "I hope that the audit will set forth a road map for the mayor to follow through with her promise."
Patterson says she knows there are people within DDOT that take the issue seriously and that the auditor knocking on the door isn't necessarily a bad thing.
"We hope to be invited in, to have the folks say, 'yes, help us figure out what we could be doing better,'" she said. "That's really the best outcome."
This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.