DC bicycling advocate Rachel Maisler created a chart of all the traffic deaths in DC. The crowd-sourced sheet and map combine data from several sources to display 2018’s fatal collisions. Maisler writes that DC’s Vision Zero (VZ) effort hasn’t reduced death in DC’s streets. The situation is worse every year since the program began.
31 People Died on DC’s Streets This Year
Maisler’s traffic death chart includes the 14 deaths so far in 2018 where the victim was not traveling in a car. 17 people died while motoring. That’s 31 traffic fatalities in 2018 through late October, during the third year of Mayor Bowser’s VZ plan meant to eliminate all road death.
Pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter riders have died so far in six of DC’s eight wards. Wards 1 (Columbia Heights/AdMo/Park View) and 4 (Takoma/Chevy Chase/16th Street Heights) were the outliers. Of the 12 victims with known age, the average was 48. Two 19-year-olds died. 84-year-old Marcelina Yanez was the first DC non-car commuter to die this year on January 4th. Ten pedestrians died, three cyclists, and one scooter rider.
Traffic Collision Data Isn’t Great But Known Numbers Get Worse Every Year
Maisler collected traffic death data from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). MPD’s stats show traffic fatalities increasing every year during DC’s VZ effort. Deaths bottomed out at 12 in 2012, were 26 when VZ launched in 2015, had climbed to 30 in 2017, and sit at 31 with two months to go in 2018.
Traffic deaths are a small percentage of total collisions. Road incidents are referred to commonly as “accidents,” but that suggests the inevitability of crashes on the road, even deadly ones. VZ’s premise is that death in the street is not an inevitability, even if low-speed, minimal injury dust-ups are.
It’s important to consider Maisler’s data in the wider context. Even if her analysis covers all 2018 non-motorist fatalities, that captures a tiny portion of the dangerous interactions that happen every day, on every street in DC, between all the different transportation modes. Maisler, who focuses her commentary on protecting the most vulnerable road users, says this: “We don’t have good numbers for the people walking, bicycling, and scooting who survive being struck but suffer injuries—from bumps and bruises to ones that are life-altering.”
You could probably reconstruct better traffic collision accounting by cross-referencing health and car insurance claims data with police reports on road collisions. Short of that laborious effort, there’s not too much information out there on traffic danger. DC is a no-fault car insurance state, so police response to less significant crashes will be spotty. Cyclists, scooter-riders, and other able-bodied young people happen to be a demographic less likely to have health insurance.
Vision Zero Hasn’t Proven to Be Effective in DC
Maisler’s data provide a reason for observers to be skeptical of DC’s Vision Zero efforts. These data don’t prove the program to be ineffective, but it indeed shows they’re not achieving their primary objective: “By the year 2024, eliminate fatalities and serious injuries to travelers of our transportation system.” Eliminating fatalities? Nope. That’s gotten worse. Eliminating serious injuries? How are they tracking this? Is it even realistic? Run that goal through a SMART analysis and get back to me.
A rule of thumb in a rigorous analysis is to ignore volume output metrics. DDOT materials proclaim success in numbers of intersections with neckdowns, bikeshare stations added, and distance of road re-surfaced. That raises the question: compared to what? That’s better than before but not necessarily better than it could have been. There’s no counter-factual, no control group or point of comparison. Moreover, these aren’t performance metrics—they don’t measure the success of the road getting safer in empirical terms.
DDOT data haven’t proven VZ to be effective on that bar of proof nor has Maisler’s database proven its failure. 14 deaths in 2018 for non-motorists, 31 total traffic deaths, is more than recent years and continues a trend. But VZ’s scope includes the exponentially larger set of non-fatal traffic collisions like this minor one in 2017.
There’s not much you can say about the safety of DC roads when we only have data for a tiny portion of the collisions. We don’t know how that small sample is skewed compared to the larger set of non-lethal traffic collisions. We can only say more people are dying in DC streets this year, than last, more than the year before. That’s the molehill we know, not the mountain VZ intends to summit.
Vision Zero’s Intent is to Eliminate Traffic Accident Blame Games
There’s a lot of reasons why traffic collisions happen. Much commentary on the subject fits into camps of blame between road users. Motorists vs. bicyclists and motorists vs. pedestrians are two prevalent conflict points. However, as pointed out by commenter CrossingBrooklynFerry on Maisler’s piece:
“The entire point of VZ is to stop playing ‘blame games’ and look for systemic solutions. Change infrastructure, change laws, improve enforcement, etc. to make the streets safer. The author is not calling for drivers as a class to sit around feeling guilty. She is calling for the District government to take VZ seriously, and to expedite the steps to make it meaningful.”
Vision Zero is about Managing the Conflict of Road Design and Road Use
The paradigm shift of Vision Zero is to see road users as subject to the design of the built environment. In short, the road allows and promotes specific behavior while constraining other types of actions. When road design and road use conflict or diverge, danger increases.
Rock Creek Parkway is a 35 mph speed limit road but designed as a four-lane divided highway with clover-leaf junctions and no non-car facilities. So, the median travel speed is much higher than 35, probably north of 45 mph when congestion doesn’t slow travel.
Another mystifying incongruity is Beach Drive, which carries a significant load of motorist commuter traffic North-South through Rock Creek Park. The beautiful route is a 25 mph road with lots of twists around blind corners. It’s designed for low volumes of slow car travel for recreation, not rush hour motorist volumes. In reality, lots of NW DC and Montgomery County drivers use the road as an alternative to Massachusetts, Wisconsin, and Connecticut Avenues, and to avoid 16th Street NW, which slows down because of frequent intersections.
The critical thing to realize here is Vision Zero should be about managing the conflict of road design and road use. Fatalities are going up probably because more people are using non-car travel modes on streets designed solely, or certainly optimized, for cars. It’s not likely, and there’s no data to support, scooter riders and cyclists are less responsible than before—nor motorists in a greater hurry. Distractions have increased for all road users, and surely there’s as much finger-pointing at the swiping cyclist as the FaceTiming driver.
Vision Zero must be an effort to address the growing diversity of modes, travel speeds, and uses of existing roads with outdated designs. It’s not that sexy of a thing. It’s like upgrading your IT infrastructure at work because the 9-to-5 involves mobile phones and collaborative applications today instead of Windows 95 and Corel’s WordPerfect.
New technologies and new use cases beget new systems, as long as leadership recognizes how much strain the new puts on the old. For DC’s roads, there’s a zero-sum battle over road space and induced demand means widening won’t help. Stakeholders will clash, especially when parking is involved, but “there should be a way for everyone to win here” according to commenter SkorpioG.