Street safety was top of mind Tuesday for District officials—and for good reason. Four D.C. children were struck by drivers in less than four weeks across three wards.
The D.C. Council met Tuesday to zero in on child traffic safety while traveling to and from school. During the public hearing led by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, who chairs the Committee on Transportation and the Environment, the Council heard from parents and Deputy Mayor of Education Paul Kihn on the Safe Passage to School Expansion Act of 2021. The bill would create a new Safe Passage office focused on student safety. The initiative enjoys support from parents and advocate groups who testified at the hearing.
But Kihn opposed the measure to establish a new office, saying it would create more bureaucracy and slow down processes already in place. Cheh says the Council is looking to address the lack of visible progress within Kihn’s Safe Passage working group after he asked the Council to hold off on further meetings about creating a new Safe Passage office in 2019.
The bill sits at the intersection of multiple crises in the District, said At-Large Councilmember Christina Henderson: gun violence, traffic danger, and safety concerns around the return to in-person classes.
“We may not be able to stop every driver from making every wrong and dangerous decision,” Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen said. “But we can … make our infrastructure, … our intersections, safer so those bad and dangerous decisions are harder to make and can do less harm. And we can have the enforcement that takes those dangerous drivers off our streets.”
One of these dangerous incidents occurred a week ago on Walk to School day when a father and his two daughters were hit by a Jeep on their way to school in Congress Heights in Ward 8. The area is one of the hardest hit communities in traffic-related injuries and deaths. Ward 7 follows close behind in the number of traffic injuries and deaths.
“The navigation through the traffic can be intense,” says Simone Scott, a commuting parent and a member of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education who attended the Council hearing. “There are not enough crossing guards to support transit through the traffic in neighborhoods east of the river. People just don’t stop, but in more affluent neighborhoods they do.”
Around the same time Tuesday, in a press conference near Deanwood Avenue metro station, where DDOT had recently installed large sidewalk bulb-outs, pedestrian islands, and speed tables, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced plans to ramp up investment in street cameras. Bowser said the accountability measure will support police action toward drivers who don’t make complete stops, run red lights, and drive while distracted with their phones.
Bowser, along with District Department of Transportation Director Everett Lott, also announced plans to complete 50 road safety projects in six weeks.
Bowser’s spring into action comes after the four traffic incidents involving children and after the D.C. Auditor announced a review of her administration’s Vision Zero initiative. Announced when she first took office in 2015, Vision Zero’s goal was to eliminate traffic fatalities by 2024. Despite low traffic numbers, D.C. saw the most traffic deaths in a decade last year at 37. Traffic deaths have increased every year since Bowser announced Vision Zero, except for 2019, DCist reported.
Some of the projects Bowser aims to complete over the next month and a half include installing speed humps, stop signs, and turn-hardening measures. Residents will be able to track the status of projects via the DDOT website, Lott said.
To meet the deadline, Bowser and Lott proposed a trade-off: less community input into traffic projects in order to streamline improvements. DDOT expects to reduce its public comment period for these projects and give public notices about them only as required by District law, Lott said.
“Where we will have community-focused projects we will, but … there are instances where we can’t, and we won’t, because we know the interventions will work and we need the interventions sooner rather than later,” Bowser said.
Long before the recent traffic fatalities such as those that killed five-year-old Allison Hart and injured other children and adult pedestrians, residents across the District have called for a quicker turnaround on safety issue reports, DDOT safety assessments, and installation of traffic slow-down mechanisms like speed bumps, all-way stops, and raised crosswalks.
Lott also announced a plan to consolidate resources: The District’s Vision Zero team will be restructured as DDOT’s project delivery administration. The millions invested in road improvements as part of the Vision Zero’s 2021 “Summer Safety Campaign” will expand to a yearly focus of 100 intersections in the city that are part of “high crash corridors,” Lott added.
“Kids deserve the right to feel safe, especially on their way to school,” Scott said. “I hope that we can … work together to make parents’ vision for our children’s safe passage a reality in our District.”