Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Blogging the D.C. pedestrian and bicycle safety hearing

February 4, 2011 - 03:45 PM
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We're here at the Wilson Building, where D.C. councilmember Phil Mendelson is chairing a hearing on pedestrian and bicyclist safety in the city. "If we want to give meaing to multi-modal transportation... and if we want a vibrant city, then we must encourage safety for people who walk and bicycle," Mendelson said in his opening remarks. Mendelson says three incidents have stuck in his mind recently: The death of an elderly man who was crossing the eight lanes of upper Connecticut Avenue NW, the death of cyclist Alice Swanson, and the death of a pedestrian who was hit by a police cruiser.

Among today's 26-person witness list are David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington, Marlene Berlin of Connecticut Avenue Pedestrian Action (CAPA), Shane Farthing of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), and Kristopher Baumann of the Fraternal Order of Police. Updates are after the jump.

3:44: OK, we're outta here. Thanks for joining!

3:26: D.C. police assistant chief Patrick Burke says traffic fatalities have dropped steadily in recent years but pedestrian fatalities have remained steady. On average, there are 16 pedestrian deaths a year in the District, and only once in the previous eight years has that number dipped below 14. Burke says more than half of these fatalities involve a "pedestrian violation" (crossing outside the crosswalk, crossing against a light, etc.).

2:56: Mendelson on faulting drivers vs. pedestrians/cyclists: "If someone is driving a 2,000 or 4,000 pound machine, they need to be held to a higher standard."

2:48: Finally, a cyclist crash story with a silver lining. Laura Pillsbury was riding on 6th Street SE a few months ago when she was hit by a taxi that ran a red light on Independence. Two witnesses told the police the driver had run the light, and thankfully for Pillsbury that wound up in the report. It was crucial for Pillsbury to recover damages after the crash.

2:38: Cyclist Douglas Kandt was hit by a taxi downtown and taken to the ER. He, too, never got his side of the story into the police report. The officer only took down the taxi driver's version -- no one else's. Kandt was ticketed for running a red light, a violation he denies.

2:25: We're now hearing some cycling horror stories. Michael Halper says he's been doored three times since he started biking in the District; Brian Bargh says he was doored by a taxi and then giving a $100 ticket for illegal passing; and Tracy Hadden Loh told her story of a devastating crash on Connecticut Avenue NW in Dec. 2008.

Loh says she was hit from behind bya minivan and went unconscious. Several pedestrians witnessed the crash but their versions never wound up in the police report. Loh only found out what they saw because one of those witnesses slipped his business card into her pocket as she was getting hauled to the hospital. Her pelvis was broken in three places. "I'm grateful for my life," she says. Among other requests, Loh is urging the city to change the way D.C. police record pedestrian crashes. As she points out, the forms are designed for auto-on-auto crashes, which may show where the investigative priorities are.

2:05: FOP head Kristopher Baumann comes through with some truly provocative testimony on traffic cameras: "Load up on em," he tells Mendelson. "As many as we can get. Double the fines, triple the fines, for repeat offenders. You wanna talk about a revenue source? I know you can't say it and the chief can't say it, but if people wanna come into the city and drive badly, fine em, and generate revenue from that." How's that for some straight talk?

2:00: Nancy Szemraj testifies that her sixth-grade daughter Grace was hit by a car running a red light on Connecticut Avenue NW back on June 14. According to Nancy, her daughter was seven seconds into the crossing light when the car rolled through the red light and the second crosswalk. Grace suffered a broken pelvis, a concussion, and extensive scrapes to her face and legs. ""To this day she remains anxious about crossing the street," says Nancy. "She continues to shy away from mirrors." She urges the council to have higher fines for running a red light -- it currently ranges from $75 to $150 -- pointing out that there are stiffer parking tickets in the city.

1:41: Veronica O. Davis of the Hillcrest Community Civic Association on the safety issues in Hillcrest: "Motorists who drive through our neighborhood have a total disregard for bicyclists and pedestrians.... Motorists regularly use the bike lanes on Alabama Avenue between Pennsylvania and Massachusetts as an extra travel lane. Many streets lack sidewalks on either side, forcing people to walk down streets like Hillcrest Drive... in the middle of the road. We want motorists to respect the people who walk and bike through the community."

1:20: Sally Schwartz just gave testimony on the death of her father, Charles Schwartz. Charles was 85 years old when he was hit by an SUV and killed on Connecticut Avenue NW in front of Politics & Prose in 2008. He was not in a crosswalk, and there was no evidence the driver was speeding. But he made no effort to brake, either. According to Sally, police discovered in their 9-month investigation that he had been talking on a cell phone at the time of the crash. A prosecutor sought a charge of negligent homicide by a grand jury declined to indict.

Sally is trying to draw attention to the problem of distracted driving, particularly when it comes to cell phones. "We absolutely believe based on all the evidence that a driver who was distracted in violation of D.C. law slammed into my father, killing him, and walked away without so much as a ticket."

1:00: Ruth Rowan is the mother of Alice Swanson, a cyclist who was killed by a trash truck near Dupont Circle. Rowan is giving a blistering critique of the D.C. police investigation of the crash. Of the investigator assigned to the case, Rowan says, "She didn’t want to find the truth. She wanted to blame this on Alice." She says police went out of their way to absolve the driver, who had a checkered traffic history and was in the country illegally, of any responsibility in the crash. The lawsuit she filed "was the only way" to bring out the truth, Rowan says.

12:39: Shane Farthing of WABA and Bradley Green of the Sierra Club have both made an important point: Bike lanes are great and all, but they're only useful when the laws are enforced on drivers. Farthing said he's been having to call the fleet management divisions of D.C. agencies to ask that they stop parking government vehicles in the city's bike lanes. Judging from all the twitpics I've seen on this topic in recent weeks, there is indeed a problem here.

Another problem Farthing is testifying on: Cyclists involved in crashes sometimes aren't even interviewed by police because they've been hauled to the hospital. Often the reporting officer doesn't even follow up, and this can have implications with insurance down the line. As Alpert just pointed out, the same has happened to pedestrians and at least one rollerblader.

12:34: Marlene Berlin of CAPA says the traffic law for yielding to pedestrians needs to be clearer -- i.e., it needs to say exactly how much distance cars need to give pedestrians at crosswalks. And like Alpert, she's all for more mobile cameras popping drivers for safety infractions.

12:24: David Alpert of Greater Greater Washington urges the council to support the D.C. police department's plan to expand its traffic camera enforcement program, particularly when it comes to citing drivers for failing to stop at stop signs and failing to yield to pedestrians. (Alpert says he was nearly clipped as he crossed the street just now to get to the Wilson Building.) He also says the city needs to keep better data on pedestrian crashes and be more open with crash reports.