The boy that was struck by a woman driving her car near the intersection of Wisconsin and 33rd St. died yesterday. This has led at least one news source to question whether that intersection is safe without traffic lights or stop signs.

The question of who is more at fault for the tragedy has not been publicly answered. WJLA has eyewitness reports that the child ran into the street and was not crossing at the crosswalk. Another witness claims, however, that the driver wasn’t paying attention and was using her cellphone, although it’s not clear whether she saw the accident firsthand.

Either way, a tragedy has occurred in Georgetown. It seems indisputable that the design of the intersection played some role in the collision. It is an oddly shaped intersection in the middle of a long stretch of road without a light or sign controlling Wisconsin Avenue traffic.

But any attempt to install a light at the intersection would likely be faced with opposition. Why? Because of what happened just a few feet away when DDOT installed a light at Reservoir Rdoad and Wisconsin. Namely, some drivers started using Reservoir just west of Wisconsin who had otherwise avoided it because of the difficulty of turning left onto Wisconsin.

33rd Street already gets a lot of northbound traffic from drivers attempting to avoid congestion on Wisconsin. This traffic on 33rd is discouraged somewhat by the perceived difficulty of turning onto northbound Wisconsin. Adding a light would change that.

Is opposition from residents of 33rd Street a good enough reason from adding a light at that intersection? I don’t think so, so long as traffic engineers conclude that a lighted traffic crossing is the best way to increase the safety of that intersection.

But Georgetown has more than one dangerous crosswalk without traffic lights or stop signs, including:

  • Volta and Wisconsin
  • P and Wisconsin
  • O and Wisconsin
  • Grace and Wisconsin
  • South Street and Wisconsin

Should we install a light at each of these intersections? Probably not, but how about a stop sign? I think it’s worth considering. I can speak from experience that it is intimidating attempting to cross Wisconsin without a traffic light or stop sign.

It’s particularly bad for Wisconsin and 33rd because the road widens and drivers heading north feel free of Georgetown congestion and thus speed up. Also, it’s at the bottom of a hill with a stop light at the top, so people naturally speed up going into it.

Knowing that a stop sign is there to reinforce the notion that the car shouldn’t just cruise through the intersection would be comforting. (Notice the first clip in the piece above: a car honking at a pedestrian for crossing legally. That’s the attitude we have to deal with.)

After I posted this article on my own site, commenters suggested that the answer is more enforcement. I don’t disagree that enforcement is lacking. On the side streets of Georgetown, commuters bypassing Wisconsin Avenue blow through stop signs constantly.

But there is only so much that enforcement can achieve. The road itself must be designed in a way to discourage reckless driving. That means considering traffic calming measures like keeping the roadway narrow and installing something, anything, at crosswalks to constantly remind drivers that they must share the road.

Cross-posted at The Georgetown Metropolitan.

Topher Mathews has lived in the DC area since 1999. He created the Georgetown Metropolitan in 2008 to report on news and events for the neighborhood and to advocate for changes that will enhance its urban form and function. A native of Wilton, CT, he lives with his wife and daughter in Georgetown.