Dear Mayor Bowser

I am inspired to publish this now because I received your News message of October 15 entitled Accelerating Roadway Safety Projects. You stated a planned “acceleration of roadway safety improvements across DC,” driven by a wave of “traffic violence.” One of the primary solutions was the reduction of the default speed limit to 20 mph, although you recognized that speed is not the only problem – it’s also “distracted driving or a refusal to share the road.” Indeed.

One of the major “solutions” proposed is your request to DDOT “to move forward with a campaign to accelerate the construction of roadway safety improvement projects that will better protect pedestrians. This includes the installation of speed humps, stop signs, and right turn hardening measures. Starting this week, and continuing annually, DDOT will target 100 intersections that are within the District’s high-crash, high-injury corridors.”

Before going further, I suggest that solving the “traffic violence” problem is not achievable by placing obstacles in the path of already frustrated drivers. Speed humps may slow a car temporarily but if they lead to rapid acceleration after driving over one, the purpose seems defeated. Similarly, stop signs work if drivers stop and look before proceeding. If not, they can create more of a hazard as people in a hurry run through them. This happens every day all over the city.

While it may appear otherwise initially, rest assured that I am on your side. You have a difficult job for reasons too well known to reiterate here. Take what I offer as a good faith effort to help. As background, I moved to the District in December 2020, following three years in New York City. Before that, I lived in Northern Virginia (Falls Church, Reston, Alexandria) beginning in 1967, so I am no stranger to this area.

It is useful to begin with consideration of some general principles. The government is essentially a joint effort, funded with community money, to establish some rules within which a civilized society can function safely and fairly. This includes rules designed to establish order in what would otherwise be a chaotic, every-person-for-himself madhouse with high risks for everyone. Without such rules, the situation would resemble the Tragedy of the Commons in which each person would act in a manner designed to benefit him alone even though the result is destruction of the common good and losses for everyone. Today, DC roads resemble the Tragedy of the Commons because gross and serious violations of the laws, rules-of-the-road and common sense are rampant.

To be clear, I am not referring to “law and order” in the Republican/Tea Party/right-wing sense of the term, nor do I want to live in a “police state.”  The goal is a regime that, with reasonable compliance, benefits everyone – drivers, bicyclists, pedestrians. Everyone enjoys the benefits of more order, smoother traffic flow, less stress and more safety. There is an irreducible minimum of order that must be maintained to prevent chaos and avoidable harms.  DC appears to be well beyond that threshold.

For context, most days I drive two roundtrips from the West End (Washington Circle area) to the east end of town (10th & K), using L Street and returning west on I Street. When the traffic is unusually slow on I Street, I often move up to K Street for the return leg. Total roundtrip distance is exactly 4.1 miles. What occurs around me almost every day borders on unbelievable but it’s all true. A very select example includes:

Just this morning, we were confronted by a car traveling the wrong way on a one-way street (11th Street NW). The driver just kept coming, veering away at the last minute and turning the corner behind us. He was either completely oblivious or determined to place himself and us at risk to avoid turning around and driving in the proper direction.

Later, as I sat waiting for the light to change at Pennsylvania and 25th Street NW, two people, at least in their 30s, walked across Pennsylvania in reliance on the “walk” sign that was clearly lit. A car headed east on Pennsylvania ran the red lights facing west, passing between the pedestrians. Apparently, neither of them was aware of the danger – each had his nose buried in a cell phone and never looked up as the car raced between them.

A white Range Rover on K Street going west abruptly moved into the right lane in front of me with no signal, then a few blocks later, drove through a red light, turned left in front of the cars in the left lane and continued down the cross street, thereby also illegally crossing the service road on the other side.

A red truck in Washington Circle stopped at a red light, then drove thru it.

A driver ran three red lights in rapid succession in Dupont Circle.

It is routine to encounter drivers on M Street in Georgetown going 40 mph and more with impunity.

Illegal parking during rush hours is rampant. By taking up what would be traffic lanes, these parkers restrict the driving space for cars, leading to congestion, anxiety and angry, reckless driving behavior. Many sections of L Street are down to one lane in many places due to rush hour parking on sections already narrowed by construction sites. Many days a week the van in the photo below is illegally parked during evening rush in front of 1100 L Street NW:

Speaking of narrowed streets, the decision to block the left lane of the L Street/20th Street corner with pylons while allowing parking along the right side has reduced L Street at that intersection to one lane.

The result is that many drivers are surprised to find the left lane blocked and struggle at the last moment to enter the traffic flow in the one remaining lane of traffic. Conflict!

Worse yet, the complexity of the pylon arrangement misleads many drivers who then make a left turn from the remaining traffic lane, crossing the bike lane and the actual left turn lane, defeating the purpose of the pylon arrangement to provide additional protection to bicyclists.

The apparent absence of law enforcement in the city has led to other dangerous practices:

Pedestrians routinely slow-walking through intersections with nose buried in can’t-wait-to-be- read cell phone messages

Scooters/motorcyclists/bicyclists lane-splitting among cars in traffic lanes, zigzagging among the cars to get ahead

Scooters suddenly flying off the sidewalk at intersections to enter traffic

Red-light violations everywhere – by cars, trucks and bicyclists – often without even showing down

Left turns on K Street across multiple traffic lanes to enter the service road going the opposite way, in effect a risky U-turn, causing much sudden lane shifting

Turning from the wrong lane, usually with no signal – failure to use turn signals is rampant everywhere

The city’s installation of bus-only lanes, sometimes changing every block or two, has created additional parking space for trucks and cars alike. Buses for which the lanes were intended are forced to veer into car traffic lanes to get back. There is no apparent enforcement.

The most egregious and often-repeated violations of good driving practices are (1) failing to use the turn signal to indicate lane-changes/turns on the streets and in the roundabouts, and (2) turning from the center lane in either direction across the actual turning lane. These happen every day on my short roundtrip.

Then there is the matter of noise. As noted, I have lived in New York City and am no stranger to the realities of compacted urban living. There is, however, a difference between the unavoidable sounds of a city, cars and buses, aircraft overhead, etc. and the entirely preventable racket made by people who get some bizarre satisfaction from drawing attention to themselves by making unnecessary noise. These include motorcycles with punched-out mufflers, or no real mufflers at all, and cars with mufflers designed to make huge bursts of sound during acceleration and braking. These cars often display spoilers on the trunk and are in the style of “muscle cars.” The drivers who race the engines in traffic, do high-rpm “jack rabbit” starts and engine-assisted stops are trying to draw attention and they do, along with a large dose of irritation at the unnecessary noise they produce. Their behavior screams “look at me, look at me!” It is irritating and distracting.

The city has, apparently, determined to address these issues by trying to force traffic to slow down, as noted in the Mayor’s news message above. Reducing speed limits may seem an easy and appropriate defense, but speed limits that are too low likely cause more problems than they solve. Take a drive on the 40 mph GW Parkway, for example. Anyone trying to comply with that speed limit on the four-lane divided road will find other drivers speeding around them, frequently showing anger, impatience and dangerous driving. Average actual speeds in those areas are vastly higher whenever traffic volume permits and often even when it doesn’t.

It seems most drivers most of the time assess the risk of getting a ticket or being involved in or causing an accident as vastly lower than the costs of being a few minutes later at their destination. There is little question that this happens on DC streets every day all day everywhere. My casual but repeated observation of DC driving behavior suggests a widespread belief among drivers that there simply are no meaningful constraints on their behavior – no laws, no rules, no risk of being caught while endangering others.

Studies in the Netherlands support the idea that higher speeds, both generally and in relation to other cars, produce more crashes with greater damage to drivers and others affected. https://www.littlerock.gov/media/2484/the-relation-between-speed-and-crashes.pdf [the Institute for Road Safety Research] But US studies suggest that may not be the whole story and that “posted limits are not the cause of auto accidents – reckless driving is.” https://www.hg.org/legal-articles/the-effects-that-speed-limits-have-on-auto-accidents-30226

The last cited article states that

A method known as the “85th percentile” is used by traffic engineers to establish speed limits. This tactic operates under the assumption that most drivers will travel at a speed that is reasonable, sensible and comfortable to them on any given roadway, regardless of the posted limit. Speed limits are set at a number that separates the bottom 85% from the top 15%. For example, if the speeds of 100 vehicles are measured and 85 vehicles are traveling at 37 mph or less, the speed limit for the road could be set at 35 mph. [emphasis added]

A California study,

showed that higher speed limits set in 1995 and 1996 did not increase the rate of fatal or injury traffic crashes. In fact, actual travel speeds on roads with increased speed limits barely changed. People were already traveling faster than previous speed limits, and once speed limits were altered they generally did not speed faster than their comfort zone…. Although findings across the country are conflicting, they have shown that drivers are by-and-large practical and cautious. In essence, posted limits are not the cause of auto accidents – reckless driving is. [emphasis added]

At the risk of exposing my confirmation bias, those US observations are consistent with my day-to-day experience in DC. Lowering speed limits to levels that most drivers will find unreasonably constraining and putting speed bumps and stop signs in more places, will not change that. Such policies simply make more people into scofflaws, but they won’t likely change outcomes much if at all.

What then to do?

First, identify some of the main drivers of the problem and put resources against them. These would certainly include illegal parking in rush hour and in places where such parking materially increases congestion and conflict. The return on investment to DC from a well-managed team of “meter monitors would likely be very high.

Second, hire, train and deploy small teams to monitor driver behavior on problematic streets and intersections. Take videos of excessively dangerous practices and have another team member stop the car and issue tickets. This is not much more complicated than fielding teams of police to use radar and then flag down speeders. Observation of vehicles in the “circles” alone would likely more than pay for the costs of the teams.

Third, use the email addresses of DC-licensed drivers to remind them of certain rules-of-the-road. Explain in stark terms that certain behaviors will no longer be tolerated and that if stopped after being notified, the consequences will be serious.

I do not suggest these steps will solve all the problems. Even a 25 percent reduction in aberrant driving would be a worthy achievement and city revenues would increase significantly.

As for noise, the solutions are similar. There is no reason that the city should put up with people who deliberately make noise just to attract attention. Horn honking by automobiles (and frequently by impatient bus drivers) should be outlawed unless essential in an emergency. You get what you tolerate. DC has a Noise Ordinance.

Section 20-2700 of the DC Municipal Regulations states,

It is the declared public policy of the District that every person is entitled to ambient noise levels that are not detrimental to life to life, health, and enjoyment of his or her property. It is hereby declared that excessive or unnecessary noises within the District are a menace to the welfare and prosperity of the residents and businesses of the District. It is the declared public policy of the District to reduce the ambient noise level in the District to promote public health, safety, welfare, and the peace and quiet of the inhabitants of the District, and to facilitate the enjoyment of the natural attraction of the District.

This regulation reflects a serious quality-of-life problem in the city. Enforce it.

The cars in question usually are Mustangs or sports cars/muscle cars that look like them, often fitted with a rear spoiler. The noise they emit is usually coincident with moving at high speed through crowded streets in places like Georgetown’s M Street and less-crowded (at least now) thoroughfares like Pennsylvania Avenue. Even casual observation by enforcement would readily identify locations where deliberate noise violations, and often related dangerous driving, occur daily. This past Sunday I observed a motorcyclist riding twice through the same Georgetown neighborhood gunning his unmuffled engine for no purpose other than making noise.

In addition to the obvious benefits to safety and good order, active enforcement of traffic safety and noise control would also benefit the city’s finances. The cost of a reasonably trained force of meter monitors, traffic monitoring teams (all of whom do not have to be police officers) focused on serious violations and repeated noise ordinance violations would contribute significant revenue to fund the city’s other obligations. Everyone wins.

 

 

 

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