Photo by Jonathan Warner on Flickr.
The DC government has committed to “Vision Zero,” a goal of eliminating all road deaths. A detailed plan from the Bowser Administration will come out Wednesday, but in the meantime, legislators have been putting forth their own proposals for laws around safety.
Four bills in the DC Council about road safety proposals were the subject of a hearing on December 8. Here’s a rundown of what they will do.
This bill, introduced by Chairman Phil Mendelson, would increase fines for people who repeatedly engage in distracted driving. Anyone with three violations within eighteen months would get his or her driver’s license suspensded and points on the license.
Today, first-time violators who purchase a hands-free device do not face any fines; the bill would end that waiver.
Speakers at the hearing were broadly supportive. Many asked whether or not it went far enough. Both the District’s Bicycle Advisory Council and Washington Area Bicyclist Association expressed interest in expanding a ban on driving while using a hands-free phone device (it’s illegal for all road users to use a handheld phone). That ban now applies to school bus drivers and novice drivers; witnesses suggested adding drivers in school zones and construction zones, or preferably all drivers at all times.
Others asked that the bill include more provisions for education about distracted driving. (Disclosure: I am acting chair of the Bicycle Advisory Council and testified on its behalf for this bill.)
Earlier this year, Mary Cheh, chair of the council’s transportation committee, convened a working group of advocates to discuss potential changes to the law around road safety. The group reached consensus on a number of changes, which are in this bill. Some of the key provisions would:
- Require the government to regularly publish data on crashes, sidewalk closures, citizen petitions for for traffic calming measures, dangerous intersections, and moving violations.
- Instruct the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to create Bicycle and Pedestrian Priority Areas (at least one per ward) with no right turns on red, lower speed limis, and more human and camera enforcement.
- Let cyclists slow down and yield rather than stop fully at stop signs.
- Write a Complete Streets policy into law. (DDOT has one today, but just as a directive of the DDOT Director which can be revoked at any time.)
- Create a curriculum on safe cycling and walking for schools; require taxi and other for-hire drivers to go through training on bicycle and pedestrian safety.
- Apply the laws for motor vehicle insurance to bicycle insurance, and allow bicycle insurance providers to require policyholders to register their bikes.
- Impose larger fines on repeat violators (up to five times the fine for a fourth offense) for violations including speeding, blocking a crosswalk, and illegal stopping or standing including in a bike lane (sorry UPS!)
- Allow aggressive driving citations for drivers who commit three or more or a set of violations (like speeding or improper lane changes). This which carries a penalty of $200 and 2 points and mandatory driver education.
- Forbid using a phone in the car when not moving.
- Require side under-run guards, reflective blind spot warning stickers, and either blind spot mirrors or cameras on all heavy-duty vehicles registered in DC. This is currently the law for District-owned vehicles.
- Create a Major Crash Review Task Force to review major crashes and recommend changes to reduce the number of them.
You can read a complete list of changes here.
Much of the discussion for this bill focused on the fact that it does not lower the speed on residential streets, a proposal which the working group discussed but didn’t reach consensus on. WABA had several proposals for ways the bill could go farther to create safer streets.
Some witnesses opposed pieces of the law. Several were uneasy about letting cyclists yield at stop signs.
The Metropolitan Police Department’s representative argued that the law was primarily about convenience and might, in an urban environment, lead to more crashes. In response, Councilmember Elissa Silverman asked if there was any evidence that it might lead to more crashes, and MPD conceded that there was none. Mary Cheh cited a recent study showing that crashes dropped 13% in Boise following the passage of a similar law in Idaho.
Insurance industry representatives said that this law would need to be coupled with a dedicated education effort. One witness from the insurance industry also objected to regulating bicycle insurance.
This bill comes from Mayor Bowser and is a companion to the forthcoming Vision Zero plan. Like the Safety Act, it would also mandate a Complete Streets system. Like the Distracted Driving Act, it would increase fines and add points for distracted driving violations.
In addition, it would enhance penalties for operating all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes on District roads and require ignition interlock devices for repeat DUI offenders and high blood alcohol content (BAC) first-time offenders.
While supportive, WRAP, MADD and AAA all suggested that the bill instead require interlock devices for all DUI offenders, as 25 states do now.
In addition to the legislative changes mention above, both Cheh’s working group report and the Vision Zero action plan recommended regulatory changes, some of which have been addressed by proposed rules that the Bowser administration proposed Friday.
These rules would:
- Require side underrun guards for certain vehicles.
- Require drivers to clear damaged but operational vehicles from the travel lanes.
- Require drivers to yield to buses merging into traffic.
- Designate certain streets as neighborhood slow zones with a maximum speed limit of 20 miles per hour (and near high-risk areas like playgrounds, as low as 15 mph).
- Add points for several offenses such as overtaking another vehicle stopped at a crosswalk or intersection for a pedestrian.
- Increase fines for infractions such as driving more than 30 mph over the speed limit (including possible jail time), running a stop sign, driving on the sidewalk, unsafely opening a door into traffic, or striking a cyclist.
- Break the violation for parking in a bike lane into two categories, one for commercial vehicles and one for non-commercial vehicles, and raise the fine from $65 to $300 and $200 respectively.
Since these changes are coming in regulations from the Bowser administration and not a bill in the DC Council, there is some conflict about whether the increased fines will be effective, and whether they’re even allowed.
Mary Cheh told the Washington Post she wanted to make sure “the mayor has authority” to raise the fines and asked, “Is there data that supports that this is something that will deter people from speeding? Otherwise people would think this is just a money raiser.”
What else could be done?
In addition to formal changes to the law and regulations, the working group recommends other steps District agencies could take to improve safety. Some of these recommendations include:
A universal street-safety education program for all elementary school students (which has already gone into effect).
More automated cameras for enforcement.
Greater “no right turn on red” restrictions in bike and pedestrian priority areas.
Distributing more free bicycle lights.
Equipping large District-owned vehicles with audible turn warnings.
- Providing more information about bicyclist insurance.
After becoming a campaign issue in the last mayoral election, District leaders have been busy this year, through multiple efforts, in working towards that goal.