Column: After a spate of traffic deaths, D.C. needs safe streets now more than ever

D.C.’s newest memorial rests along the outskirts of GW’s campus at the corner of I and 21st streets. Adorned with flowers and photos and erected by members of D.C.’s cycling community, a white bicycle stands alone. The memorial, known as a “ghost bike,” honors Shawn O’Donnell – a cyclist who died last week after the driver of a Mack truck fatally struck her at that intersection. She was the third bicyclist to die in a collision this month and one of 21 traffic fatalities in the District so far this year. But O’Donnell’s death was no accident – our streets, even in relatively pedestrian- and bike-friendly Foggy Bottom, are unsafe.

O’Donnell was struck when a truck driver turned right onto I Street as she continued to travel southbound on 21st Street through the intersection, according to a Metropolitan Police Department release last week. Photos and videos posted to Twitter show O’Donnell’s bike caught beneath the truck. But what really happened? Who wasn’t paying attention? Who’s responsible?

I don’t care to answer these questions, not least because we still don’t know the full story. In fact, it’s unclear if the traffic signals at the intersection were operational at the time of the collision. No amount of personal responsibility can make up for the fact that D.C.’s streets and the city itself failed Shawn O’Donnell, just as it has failed cyclists and pedestrians across the District for nearly a decade.

Under Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Vision Zero plan, the District is supposed to entirely eliminate traffic fatalities in D.C. by 2024. Yet traffic fatalities have increased nearly every year since the program launched in 2015, cresting at 40 deaths in 2021 alone. The 2022 total has already passed the halfway mark of last year’s count, currently at 21 traffic fatalities as of Thursday. But both these figures downplay the extent of the issue – hundreds if not thousands of people sustain non-fatal injuries on the city’s streets annually. Instead of safe streets, we have traffic bollards snapped like plastic straws and city-owned vehicles blocking bicycle lanes. It’s true that the city has made some tangible progress here and there, rebuilding intersections and creating new bike lines in places where injuries are likely. But Bowser and the D.C. Council are still blind to the problem before them.

Alongside O’Donnell, cyclists Michael Gordon, Michael Hawkins Randall and pedestrian Charles Jackson also died after being struck by vehicles this month. Vehicular violence is quite literally out of control in D.C. – a driver even crashed their car into the Watergate complex last week – though fortunately, no one died. While traffic injuries and fatalities disproportionately affect minority and lower-income pedestrians and cyclists, recent deaths show how such violence cuts across communities regardless of race, age and ability. If it can happen in Foggy Bottom, it can happen anywhere.

But the goal behind Vision Zero is a noble one, and I still think we ought to eliminate or at least significantly reduce traffic deaths in D.C. So how can we transform D.C.’s streets, especially its intersections, from fatal “failures” to safe “successes”? There’s no shortage of tools to choose from. Raised crosswalks and intersections that lie level with the curb can act as speed bumps that force drivers to slow down as they approach. On wider roads like Pennsylvania and Virginia avenues, pedestrian islands can shorten the distance required to cross the road while prone to oncoming traffic, shielding pedestrians and cyclists from cars. And using a combination of bollards, planters and curbs, we can create protected bike lanes and intersections that keep pedestrians and cyclists away from dangerous vehicle traffic.

But street design alone isn’t enough – we also need to rethink the vehicles that travel on our streets. To its credit, D.C. has required all heavy-duty vehicles registered in the District to have side guards since 2019. Whether individual bars or a continuous barrier, side guards block the empty space between the front and back wheels of large trucks to prevent pedestrians and cyclists from being swept beneath the vehicle in a collision. Yet the truck that killed O’Donnell didn’t have side guards – it belongs to a Maryland construction company, limiting the District’s ability to regulate it. Though it runs into the same jurisdictional issues as mandating side guards, the District could also require private operators to use cab-over-engine trucks. These “high-vision” vehicles have a flat front instead of a larger nose that could block pedestrians and cyclists from the driver’s view. As difficult as it may be to regulate large trucks both within and outside of D.C., our streets are only as safe as the most dangerous vehicles on the road – we have to address the deadly potential of oversized vehicles.

The bottom line is that everyone uses the street, and everyone should feel safe doing so. These proposals can help us move toward a better future, even if they cost time and money and need public support. In Foggy Bottom, it’s time to redouble our efforts to create safe streets. In too many parts of the District, those efforts are just beginning.

We cannot and should not tolerate the alternative – we already know what a world without safe streets looks like. It’s a world in which drivers have hit students again and again and again on H Street. It’s a world of inaccessible sidewalks and unmarked crosswalks for people with disabilities. It’s a world in which Shawn O’Donnell, Michael Gordon, Michael Hawkins Randall, Charles Jackson and countless others died needlessly. It’s the world we live in now. But it’s a world we can change.

Better, safer streets are possible. We only have to build them.

Ethan Benn, a rising junior majoring in journalism and communication, is the opinions editor

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