Crossing the street while walking through any big city, including Washington DC, can be so routine an activity that most people scarcely give it a second thought. But it only takes a second for the routine to turn tragic. Distracted drivers and pedestrians alike are often the greatest contributing factors to these preventable accidents.
Oftentimes, the accidents are not a result of highspeed encounters. Rather, the speed and weight of a car hitting a pedestrian can result in significant pain and injury, if not death, even if the car is going relatively slowly.
A recent report from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) looking at state and national trends in pedestrian fatalities found an increase in pedestrian deaths in the first six months of 2020 relative to the same time period the prior year, despite fewer vehicles being on the road during that time. Pedestrian deaths were estimated at 2.2 deaths per billion vehicle miles traveled. The report suggests that an increase in reckless behaviors such as speeding and distracted driving contributed to the 20% increase in pedestrian fatalities from January to June of 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019.
Pedestrian Fatalities in Washington, DC
These are certainly dangers in any city and that would include Washington, DC. In 2019, the city saw 12 fatalities stemming from a pedestrian being fatally struck by a car. The following year, 2020, that number dropped to 10 deaths. These numbers are in line with the average pedestrian fatality accident rate over the last decade of eleven deaths per year. The fact that this number has remained fairly constant is surprising though, given that according to statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, nationally, between 2010 and 2019 the number of vehicle-related pedestrian deaths had risen by nearly 45% and accounted for approximately 17% of all motor vehicle crash-related deaths.
So how does Washington DC’s pedestrian fatality statistics compare to other metropolitan areas of similar sizes? With a population of approximately 706,000 residents, Washington DC is the twentieth largest city in the United States. By contrast, Denver, at number 19, has a population of 727,000 and had eleven pedestrians killed in both 2019 and 2020. Boston, the twenty-first largest city with a population of almost 693,000 had just 7 pedestrians killed by cars in 2019 and 4 in 2020.
Causes of Pedestrian Deaths
The steady level of pedestrian deaths in Washington DC looks to be something of an anomaly. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, the rising pedestrian fatality rate is a surprising statistic given that for roughly half that time, people were vastly limiting their travel at the start of the coronavirus pandemic quarantine period.
But the report also highlighted a number of findings based on drilling down into the data. Many pedestrians injured or killed were walking at night along poorly lit roads, away from well-lit city intersections. Also, nearly half of the pedestrian fatalities were caused by individuals who were driving while intoxicated. Even aside from accidents, incidents of drivers hitting pedestrians have frequently been caused by drowsiness or fatigue, distractions from phone or computer tablets, or just plain poor judgement or negligence all on the part of the driver.
Bloomberg City Lab further assigns blame to the increased popularity of ride hailing services and the greater number of large SUVs on the roads.
Causes specific to Washington DC
For a variety of reasons, Washington DC attracts millions of visitors, both drivers and pedestrians each year. Many of the drivers are not familiar with the roadways. And many of the pedestrians are distracted by the sites of the nation’s capital.
All cities have their own unique features, and Washington DC is no different. As the hub of the United States government, many people live outside of Washington and commute into the city and their jobs. This influx of people certainly adds to the number of people on sidewalks and crossing streets, walking from the point where they leave their commuter transport – train, car, etc.- to their place of work.
While most major cities probably see their fair share of tourism, the governmental buildings and museums of Washington DC attract a number of domestic tourists as well as tourists from abroad. In 2018, according to Destination DC, there were 21.9 million visitors from within the United States and another 1.9 million foreign visitors to the nation’s capital.
Government Offices and Agencies
Additionally, the city attracts many foreign visitors who have business with the various governmental agencies that call the city home. In many of those countries, cars drive on the left hand side of the road instead of the right. So for people coming from those countries, their instinct is to turn and look to their right for immediate oncoming traffic whereas those of us in America are conditioned to look to our left for oncoming traffic first. And that simple difference in culture (and traffic laws), could conceivably also lead to an unfortunate accident.
There is no one solution to reducing pedestrian related injuries and fatalities. It is a multifaceted problem that requires an equally multifaceted solution.
Just this past September, the Washington DC Council approved a large measure that would bring a number of improvements to the city that should help reduce the growing number of traffic injuries and fatalities. Among the changes in the bill are improvements to bike and pedestrian infrastructure, a doubling of the number of red light cameras that the city uses for automated traffic enforcement, identifying high-risk intersections and areas where access to transit needs improvement and increasing traffic safety education.
If passed, right on red turns would be banned in locations with heavy pedestrian traffic, sidewalks would be required on both sides of the street, and contractors would be fined up to $16,000 daily for failure to comply with the new regulations.
The bill is part of Mayor Muriel E Bowzers initiative to eliminate all traffic fatalities in the city by 2024. It was developed in conjunction with the advocacy group Zero Vision.
What is Vision Zero? Vision Zero is an initiative aimed at making streets safer for pedestrians and drivers alike. It rejects that idea that accidents that lead to fatalities are inevitable. Instead, they substitute the belief that traffic-related deaths are preventable and that rather than trying to perfect human behavior, there is a need to integrate the fact of human failure into civic planning. As they say on their website, “Vision Zero recognizes that people will sometimes make mistakes, so the road system and related policies should be designed to ensure those inevitable mistakes do not result in severe injuries or fatalities.”
How to Avoid Pedestrian Accidents
While local government initiatives are helpful in making Washington DC, or any city, a safer place for pedestrians, individuals must always take caution to prevent these types of accidents.
Advice for pedestrians
For starters, if you are walking in the evening or at night, make sure that you are as visible as you possibly can be to motorists. Stay along lit roadways and sidewalks whenever possible. Wear light colored or reflective clothing. Carry some form of light with you, such as a flashlight or even your phone. Walk on the left and against traffic, if no sidewalk or pathway is available. Cross the street at intersections whenever possible. If no intersection is available, find a stretch of road that allows for as much visibility as possible of traffic coming from both directions.
But perhaps the most important precaution one can take is being cognizant of one’s surroundings. Just as a distracted driver might not see a pedestrian walking along the side of a road, a distracted pedestrian might not see a vehicle that is heading dangerously their way. Good situational awareness can very well be the determining factor in your safety.
Advice for motorists
Washington, DC has the following rules to help make the city’s streets safer and more pedestrian-friendly:
- When a vehicle is stopped to turn right at a red light, the driver must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk; pedestrians have the right of way.
- When a car is making a right or left turn, the driver must first look for bicyclists and pedestrians
- Vehicles must come to a complete stop when approaching a pedestrian in a crosswalk
And, of course, drivers should always maintain a safe speed. This is especially true in congested areas where pedestrians and bicyclists share the road with large motor vehicles.
Aside from speed, distraction and impairment are two of the leading causes of auto accidents of all kinds, including those involving pedestrians. Even hands-free technology can take a driver’s attention from the task at hand, and threaten the lives of others on the road. Drivers must never operate a vehicle under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
If you were hit by a car and suffered a serious injury, or if a loved one was killed after being hit by a car as a pedestrian you may be able to take legal action. A personal injury lawyer would be able to look at the facts of your case, help you document what information would be needed and advise as to what options would be open to you and how to proceed. However, as with all lawsuits, there are a few things you need to keep in mind as you move forward.
Statute Of Limitations
As with every legal process, there is a strict time limit for which one can file a personal injury lawsuit for trauma suffered as the result of an accident with a car. That time frame can vary from state to state, but in Washington DC that window of opportunity is only open for three years, starting from the date of the accident.
This statute of limitations is an important time frame to note. Sometimes, the result of an injury from an accident does not manifest itself until some time has passed. Someone may think that they escaped an encounter with a car with nothing more than a few bruises only to find out six months or a year or more later that some health issue that can be traced back to that accident has suddenly flared up. This window allows for those hidden issues to reveal themselves and for the injured party to take action.
Contributory Negligence Law
When seeking damages in court, it is vitally important to remember that Washington DC (along with Virginia and Maryland) follows what is known as a Contributory Negligence Law. In essence, the rule states that if a person contributed to an accident in which they are injured in even the slightest way, they lose their ability to hold another party liable for their injuries.
For example, suppose you are a pedestrian, and you start to step out into the street, but get clipped by a speeding car going the wrong way up a one-way street. That certainly sounds like the driver of the car is at fault due to their negligence. However, imagine that it is also determined that the intersection’s traffic light was not in your favor to cross the street. Just taking one step into the street against the light would put you partially at fault for the accident, and thus invalidate your ability to claim damages from the other party according to the Contributory Fault Rule.
Even though millions of pedestrians make their way to and from their destinations safely every day, like in all things, there is always the risk of an accident that could result in injury, or even death. Work is being done to lower those risks by many metropolitan cities, oftentimes in conjunction with advocacy groups like Vision Zero. And thanks to analysis of these types of accidents, we know that there are certain steps and behaviors that pedestrians can take to lessen their own risk of injury or death. But if the unfortunate were to happen, there are legal options available to help those involved.