The District’s fix­a­tion on fines is im­ped­ing a much-needed traf­fic-safety pro­gram

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - Dr. Grid­lock ROBERT THOM­SON Dr. Grid­lock also ap­pears Thurs­day in Lo­cal Liv­ing. Com­ments and ques­tions are wel­come and may be used in a col­umn, along with the writer’s name and home com­mu­nity. Write Dr. Grid­lock at The Wash­ing­ton Post, 1301 K St. NW, Wash

Dear Dr. Grid­lock:

Per­haps you can ex­plain to me why the new D.C. mea­sure in­creas­ing traf­fic fines puts a lower fine on a bi­cy­clist hit­ting a pedes­trian on a side­walk than in a street. As a fre­quent pedes­trian, I have much greater prob­lems dodging the for­mer than the lat­ter.

And why, for the lat­ter, are pedes­tri­ans re­quired to prove they were legally cross­ing the street, with no such re­quire­ment for cy­clists?

So, for ex­am­ple, if a bike is go­ing the wrong way down a one-way street (a not-un­com­mon oc­cur­rence) and hits a pedes­trian who is jay­walk­ing, no fine would be levied?

— Vic Miller, the District

Like Miller, I’m wary of side­walk en­coun­ters with bi­cy­clists. Many of them are weaving among pedes­tri­ans and go­ing too fast. A pedes­trian doesn’t have to be hit to feel the in­tim­i­dat­ing pres­ence of a cy­clist.

The pro­posal un­der pub­lic re­view makes too fine a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the fines. It will be $150 for a cy­clist hit­ting a pedes­trian cross­ing a road­way where the walker has the right of way.

It will be $100 when a cy­clist col­lides with a pedes­trian on a side­walk. Out­side the cen­tral busi­ness district, cy­clists and pedes­tri­ans are sup­posed to be shar­ing most side­walks, but cy­clists still must yield to pedes­tri­ans.

Trav­el­ers are al­ways di­vid­ing them­selves into cat­e­gories de­pend­ing on ex­actly how they use the streets. They pay at­ten­tion to dis­tinc­tions be­tween fines as­sessed in dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances.

This is un­der­stand­able, but un­for­tu­nate. Cre­at­ing de­bates about the size of fines is a need­less dis­trac­tion in ad­vanc­ing the much-needed traf­fic-safety pro­gram known as Vi­sion Zero. The new or tough­ened-up fines — and es­pe­cially the dif­fer­ences be­tween the var­i­ous fines — are the least im­por­tant part of the pro­gram.

Vi­sion Zero, an in­ter­na­tional pro­gram, seeks to elim­i­nate traf­fic deaths within each par­tic­i­pat­ing ju­ris­dic­tion. Wide­spread suc­cess in end­ing this waste of life would rank as one of the great achieve­ments of the 21st cen­tury, just as elim­i­nat­ing small­pox from the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment was among the great achieve­ments of the 20th.

The District’s tar­get is zero deaths by 2024. Yes, en­force­ment is an im­por­tant part of that, but stop­ping peo­ple from in­jur­ing oth­ers is more im­por­tant than fin­ing them af­ter they do so.

I fear this too-fre­quently-asked ques­tion from trav­el­ers: If a driver has the green light but hits a pedes­trian in a cross­walk, who gets the ticket?

Do the ques­tion­ers want me to clarify when pedes­tri­ans are in sea­son?

It’s never okay to hit them. If you should find your­self in that aw­ful sce­nario, are you really go­ing to worry about the size of the ticket you might get?

A suc­cess­ful safety pro­gram isn’t about re­venge — sweet as that might be af­ter you’ve had a too-close en­counter with an­other trav­eler you think was in the wrong. It’s about giv­ing trav­el­ers guid­ance on what’s ex­pected of them and why, about de­sign­ing streets and sig­nal sys­tems to min­i­mize the con­se­quences of our mis­takes and to de­ter us from en­dan­ger­ing oth­ers.

Based on what I’ve heard from trav­el­ers over a decade, it’s the like­li­hood of penal­ties for traf­fic vi­o­la­tions that is the great­est de­ter­rent.

For ex­am­ple, I find that many driv­ers have no prob­lem with speed lim­its. They rou­tinely ig­nore them.

What they ob­ject to is en­force­ment of the speed lim­its. They just hate that. Speed­ers of­ten ex­press this by rec­om­mend­ing that traf­fic cam­eras or po­lice cruis­ers be placed on other roads, prefer­ably roads these driv­ers don’t use.

The size of var­i­ous fines has less im­pact. Do you know what the D.C. fine is for rid­ing on the side­walk where it’s not per­mit­ted?

It’s $25. And yes, I’d like to see that one en­forced, but not be­fore the District widely dis­trib­utes signs warn­ing cy­clists of the down­town ban.

I don’t want cy­clists to get fined for hit­ting pedes­tri­ans on down­town side­walks. I want them to stay off the side­walks in the first place.

Vi­sion Zero could be one of D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s most im­por­tant lega­cies, but we’ve got to get on with it. In 2016, 28 peo­ple died in traf­fic in­ci­dents. That was up from 26 in 2015.

That’s a long way from zero, and 2024 isn’t that far off.

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