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Pedestrians are an endangered species in the District.
On a dry midafternoon early last December, Silvia Zimmermann stepped into a crosswalk at the 5600 block of MacArthur Boulevard NW, only yards from where she lived. An 81-year-old District native and lifelong nondriver, Zimmermann was halfway across the four-lane road when an unidentified vehicle struck her down.
In an ironic and tragic twist, Zimmermann was killed in the very crosswalk that she had beseeched the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to create a dozen years ago, according to her son, Phillip Zimmermann. Only months earlier, and partly at her urging, the same crosswalk had been repainted and clearly marked for drivers.
“Commuters drive through this neighborhood like they’re on a raceway,” says Nela Bowling, who commutes to a job in the Palisades neighborhood from her home in Bethesda. Bowling knows about pedestrian endangerment: She has been struck twice by cars elsewhere in the Districtonce downtown, and once in Adams Morgan.
Zimmermann was the District’s 19th and final pedestrian fatality in 2000, a year in which police records indicate that 38 percent of those killed in auto collisions were pedestrians. According to a report titled D.C. at the Crossroads, issued in February by Friends of the Earth, 134 pedestrians died in the District between 1994 and 2000.
City officials say that statistics for nonfatal pedestrian injuries during that period will become public by year end. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which monitors such statistics on a nationwide level, estimates that seven “serious” pedestrian injuries occur for every such death. If the District holds to that average, injuries to its residents numbered more than 900 over the same period.
Most District pedestrians have their own nominations for the most dangerous stretch of the city for walking, but numerous studies have been conducted as well. Ward 7 and Ward 8where sidewalks are relatively scarcehave borne more than 40 percent of D.C.’s pedestrian deaths, despite the fact that these wards have the fewest commuters by foot and boast only a quarter of the city’s population.
When DOT studied intersection collision data, it found that the intersection of New York Avenue and 4th Street NW was the most volatile crossing in the District. The Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), assessing corners with the most vehicular speeding, found that the intersection of 25th and K Streets NW ranked highest in its survey. Friends of the Earth’s analysis of federal fatality data in the District found that a four-mile corridor of Florida Avenue/Benning Road NE had more fatalities (12) in the past seven years than any other strip of road in the District. The largest and westernmost ward in the city, Ward 3, has had the fewest pedestrian fatalities (2) since 1994.
Regardless of how the statistics break down, many District residents want more say over traffic in their neighborhoods. Last year, the city received more than 100 requests to install traffic-control devices; fewer than 30 were installed.
It costs the city about $150,000 to place a new traffic light at an intersection. The process takes 18 months from the time a petition is received. Two years have passed, for instance, since a request was made for traffic lights at the intersection of 13th and Allison Streets NE. To date, only the design for the signal has been completed, according to the DOT.
“We’re playing catch-up,” says DOT chief Dan Tangherlini.
Obtaining a new traffic-control device is a trip down a long and winding road. DOT says that a local advisory neighborhood commission must collect signatures from two-thirds of its residents to obtain an evaluation of the site. Officials then assess the intersection, eyeballing its dangers, documenting its traffic volume, and checking their findings against federal regulations to confirm that pedestrian volume justifies a device.
Even then, the new stop sign or traffic light may not accomplish the task for which it is intended.
“D.C. already has more signs protecting our local roads than most any other urban area,” says Jerry Donaldson, senior research director of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. He observes that too many stop signs, lights, and speed bumps merely encourage time-pressed drivers to race between the forced pauses.
There are indications that the issue of pedestrian safetyand particularly the war between “time-pressed” drivers and pedestrians is catching fire politically.
Ward 4 Councilmember Adrian Fenty says that 150 residents attended a February meeting on the subject in his ward, and in May, 140 people joined Mayor Anthony A. Williams for a “traffic summit” in Friendship Heights. The loudest complaint at the latter meeting was the threat to pedestrians by speeding commuters, observes Ward 3 Councilmember Kathy Patterson. And last week, the Anacostia Coordinating Council considered a resolution on reducing pedestrian endangerment east of the river.
At such meetings, promises of greater police enforcement are top applause lines, as are calls for more speed bumps and stop signs. Starting this summer, the MPD will ramp up its enforcement of speeding laws with what it says is the largest deployment of speed-violator-detection technology in the nation. DOT will also get into the act, via a spending spree on pedestrian-safety devices, many of which will be new to the District.
“Excessive speed is the decisive factor in more than half of collisions in the District,” says Lt. Bridget Sickon, who heads the MPD’s major crash unit. She adds that intoxication, jaywalking, poor visibility, and bad road design are also contributing factors.
When the MPD studied speeding block by block this spring, it found that more than half of the vehicles surveyed were exceeding the speed limit by 11 mph. To curb speeding, the MPD plans to ticket more drivers for violations. According to Lt. Patrick Burke, the MPD’s traffic guru, the goal is to increase ticketing for speeding violations from 12,232 last year to a whopping 400,000 or more next year. Burke predicts that a crackdown on speed can succeed in protecting pedestrians in the same way that stricter enforcement has increased the District’s rating for seat-belt usage to second in the nation, according to the National Safety Council.
The MPD has other tweaks to its speeding enforcement planned. The department says that it will deploy 70 new $5,000 mobile speed cameras at various city intersections to snap photos of license plates. These cameras, according to the MPD, target speeders more precisely than traditional radar guns do, and the department will mail $75 fines to offending car owners. The MPD adds that the cameras will also be lent to neighborhood associations, which can record speeds in their neighborhood and send written warnings to drivers.
Not everyone believes that increased ticketing will make a dent in pedestrian deaths. “Ticketing speeding drivers does not increase pedestrian safety,” says Eric Skrum, spokesperson for the National Motorists Association. “Accidents happen because intersections are poorly designed. Several studies have found that adding streetlights, widening lanes, using reflective markers and clearer lane divisions, and improving sidewalks can reduce accidents more than ticketing speeders.”
The poor street design to which Skrum points has proved to be a factor in pedestrian fatalities, particularly when combined with excessive speed.
On a clear night last December, 64-year-old Annmarie Stevenson was killed as she walked in a crosswalk at North Capitol and Longfellow Streets NE. Stevenson’s son, Gerald Austin, and MPD investigators say that Stevenson was killed by a speeding vehicle, but several local residents blame the tangle of streets at the spot where she was killed. North Capitol, Longfellow, and New Hampshire Avenue converge near the accident scene, confusing many drivers.
DOT promises that street design improvements are forthcoming this year. The department will deploy the city’s first countdown lights, which warn pedestrians of how much time they have to clear a crosswalk, and its first “speed humps”raised portions of road that annoy speeding drivers but, unlike speed bumps, don’t send racing ambulances flying into the air.
Moreover, DOT will re-stripe some crosswalks with illuminated markers for better reflection and visibility and also fill in crosswalks with dual parallel lines with additional markings.
Many are urging further innovation to lessen the pedestrian death toll. “If regulations won’t permit four-way stop signs, or if they won’t be effective, let’s experiment with other technologies,” says Eugene Dewitt Kinlow, president of the Far Southwest Civic Association. “Let’s paint the pavement reflective colors at dangerous intersections. Let’s move Metrobus stops to safer parts of blocks. Let’s introduce parabolic mirrors. And what about putting pylons in median strips to warn drivers to slow down?”
Simple and cheap improvements are also available, argues Palisades activist John Finney. “Older folks who’ve lost a step or two, like myself, need more time to get along crosswalks, so the timing of signals should be lengthened by changing the central computer,” he observes. At present, most crosswalk lights in the District flash “Walk” long enough for pedestrians to cross an intersection at a rate of 4 feet per secondtoo fast for many impaired walkers.
Pedestrians themselves can also be more aware of the dangers surrounding them. Pedestrians were at fault in six of the 19 fatalities in 2000, according to MPD records. In only three cases was the driver or the pedestrian believed to have been recklessly intoxicated. Nationally in the past decade, however, about a third of adult pedestrian victims had more than the legal limit (.10 percent) of alcohol in their bloodstreams, according to NHTSA.
Many joggers find the city’s streets safe enough to treat them as an ongoing track-and-field event, and jaywalkinga popular District pastimeis rarely punished. Burke notes, for instance, that almost no citations were issued for jaywalking last year, but he could not cite an exact figure. “Because the $5 fine is so small,” he observes, “it’s embarrassing for officers to issue.” The MPD promises a coordinated jaywalking crackdown on busy downtown blocks this fall, and city officials are lobbying the D.C. Council to raise the fine to $25.
Nonetheless, observes Marie Birnbaum of the advocacy group Walk DC, “Pedestrians aren’t the ones wielding the two-ton speeding weapons.”
MPD Chief Charles Ramsey agrees. “Anytime you see a pedestrianwhether they have the walk sign or notyield,” Ramsey says. “They may be wrong, but you can’t run them over.”
Despite official concern, District regulations seem to favor drivers, says Finney. The penalty for running down a pedestrian is a maximum of five years jail time, with most defendants plea-bargaining for less, compared with a minimum of 20 years for charges of most degrees of homicide.
“We ought to be able to cross our streets,” says Cora Jones, who knew Silvia Zimmermann and has lived in the Palisades neighborhood for 61 years. “But I’m scared to.” CP