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