The Washington Post
Amid uptick in traffic fatalities, area residents have little faith in drivers
sharp increases in deaths of pedestrians and bicyclists. The findings also provide some insight into road users’ experiences, where tensions between drivers, cyclists and pedestrians have escalated amid the growth in bike commuting and the use of newer transportation services such as ride-hailing and scooters.
In follow-up interviews, Washington-area residents said they worry about a culture of speeding and reckless driving and other unsafe road behaviors. Distractions such as cellphones, among all road users, have made the streets more dangerous for everyone.
They describe the region’s drivers as erratic and rushed, and interactions — especially between drivers and cyclists — as adversarial and hostile.
“I am more afraid of the roadways now than I have ever been and I have been driving for 36 years,” said Cecilia Marsh, a Realtor from Gaithersburg. “The lack of humanity on our roadways is dangerous . . . We just don’t think about someone other than ourselves.”
Six in 10 people who drive at least a few times a week say that drivers violate laws at least “very often,” 44 percent of regular cyclists say the same thing about bicyclists and 48 percent of regular walkers say pedestrians violate traffic laws — none of these deviates significantly from opinions of others in the region.
But there is most agreement that drivers violate traffic laws frequently. In fact, similar shares of almost all demographic groups say that drivers violate traffic laws.
Marsh said many drivers appear to be unaware of the rules of the road, flying through stop signs or ignoring bans against right turns on red. A refresher driving course would be helpful, she said. But mostly, she said, people need to use the common sense.
“That text message and that phone call is not that important. Driving is serious business. You can kill someone in the blink of an eye,” Marsh said.
Robin Swearingen, 32, a public health professional who commutes by bike from the District to Crystal City, said maybe it’s that people in the Washington region are more stressed or in more of a hurry. He has been struck by a car while riding his bike twice in the past four years; once by a driver making an illegal right turn and the other by a car that cut across a bike lane from an alley, he said.
Swearingen said the interactions between drivers and bicyclists are “pretty adversarial.” Drivers park in bike lanes and shout at riders on the road because they don’t think cyclists belong in traffic lanes — where they are legally allowed to ride.
“There’s generally not a culture of respect for bicyclists,” Swearingen said.
The poll findings likely reflect how much exposure D.C.-area residents have to various modes of transportation in an area where driving is still the most common way that people get around, said Jeannette Chapman, deputy director of the Schar School’s Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University. They also could be a reflection of how familiar residents are with the laws regarding those modes.
For example, more people say that they have no opinion about e-scooters — the latest entrant into the region’s transportation system — in the suburbs where the devices aren’t available or very prevalent.
“They don’t have a whole lot of exposure to them,” Chapman said. “I am not sure how well people know the laws regulating scooters. Are they supposed to be on the sidewalks? Are they supposed to be on roads?”
Scooters have become ubiquitous downtown, where they have become a popular choice for getting around since their arrival more than a year ago. The devices are also available in parts of Alexandria, and Arlington and Montgomery counties.
A larger share of D.C. residents (58 percent) are critical of scooter riders, where they are most prevalent. In the Maryland suburbs, 43 percent say scooter riders violate laws at least very often, along with 38 percent in the Virginia suburbs.
The problem with scooters and bicycles, some residents say, is that they are not just in the streets sharing space with cars, but also on crowded sidewalks. Though bikes and scooters are banned from sidewalks in downtown Washington, for example, many riders ignore the rules.
“The problem isn’t just that they are on the sidewalk, but that they go so fast,” said Jane Walstedt, 77, who lives in Dupont Circle. “The other day I was walking through Dupont Circle, and a scooter rider whizzed past me on the left very close, with no warning. If I had unknowingly veered to the left, he might have mowed me down.”
William Herron, a retired federal worker who bikes and walks daily, and drives occasionally, said all road users are contributing to unsafe streets. He said there’s not a day he doesn’t see drivers, cyclists and pedestrians with their eyes glued to their smartphones.
“We have all of these distracted people coming and going in the same space. It is not surprising that people are getting hit and injured and killed,” Herron said.
“When you were growing up did your mother tell you to look both ways before crossing the street? My mother did,” he said. “But I just see people merging into intersections without even looking, expecting the traffic to stop.”
Elizabeth Thompson, a 33year-old D.C. event planner who drives daily, says she’s seen road behaviors worsen over the past few years with the addition of thousands of for-hire vehicles on the region’s roadways.
“There are so many Uber and Lyft drivers. They are lost. They are making really dangerous exits or left turns. They are making last-minute decisions and then they put on their [hazard lights] and park in the middle of the street to let someone out,” Thompson said.
“I can almost 99 percent guarantee that if someone does something crazy on the road in front of me . . . They have a GPS going in the car and someone sitting in the back seat. And almost always, it is with a Virginia license plate,” she said. “Not pointing fingers, but yes, pointing fingers.”
Studies have shown that the explosive growth of Uber and Lyft have made traffic worse in major U.S. cities, including the District. Revenue data show the ride-hailing industry’s growth in the Disincluding trict quadrupled from late 2015 to 2017.
Thompson said more designated pickup and drop-off zones for ride-share cars might be a solution, along with better enforcement and driver training.
“There has to be more rigorous policing of those services,” Thompson said.
The District and area jurisdictions have been trying to crack down on bad behavior with the increased use of automated enforcement. The revenue generated by speed and red-light cameras — tens of millions of dollars, shows the extent of the problem. In the District, which recently raised traffic fines, officials are even considering recruiting citizens to enforce some traffic laws.
Chapman, of the Schar School, said there is more demand for the limited road space now than there was as recently as five years ago because of the proliferation of new modes of transportation. Those new modes, such as scooters, exacerbated existing problems and created new ones — such as questions about what rules they should follow and how they should be regulated.
Chapman said data and research show that road problems — from gridlock to collisions to fatalities — are pervasive and not limited to just one mode, such as cars.
“There’s also a little bit of potential oddity that happens when we think about other commuters or travelers: ‘I am not violating [the law] but everyone else is,’” she said.
When it comes to cyclists, nearly half (49 percent) of Washington-area residents say bikers break traffic laws at least very often, including 22 percent who say they do almost all the time.
D.C. residents are more likely to complain about bicyclists’ behavior, with 61 percent saying cyclists break the rules of the road at least very often compared with 48 percent in the Maryland suburbs and 47 percent in the Virginia suburbs. Roughly one-third of city residents say cyclists almost always break laws (32 percent).
“It seems people are always blaming car drivers for accidents with bicyclists, but I’m surprised there aren’t more accidents given how many bicyclists go through red and yellow lights, swerve between lanes and between cars, and ride against the traffic on one-way streets,” District resident Tommy Sams said. “They too should follow the laws.”
Herron, the retired federal worker who bikes daily, says his close calls on the road have mostly been encounters with other cyclists or scooter riders.
“Given my age, probably I am inclined to obey the law and stop at the stop sign or a red light and not run though it like many bikers do,” said Herron, 77. “That is a very dangerous practice, not just risking being hit by a car, but risking hitting other people and other bikers.”
The Washington Post-Schar School poll was conducted by telephone April 25 to May 2 among a random sample of 1,507 adult residents of the Washington area, with 75 percent of interviews conducted on cellphones and 25 percent on landlines. Results from the full sample have a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.