In early December of 2016, Alexandria resident Mike Doyle was walking home from work when he was struck by a careless driver at one of the many four-way stops in Old Town. He had the right of way, but a driver turning into the crosswalk didn't see him and hit him going about 20 miles per hour.
“Whether that person stopped, or did a rolling stop, I'll never know. But that driver wanted to beat the driver opposite him, so he sort of gunned it. At that point, I was more than halfway through the crosswalk,” Doyle says.
For the first three months after the collision, Doyle worried he wouldn't be able to return to work due to neurological damage that made looking at a computer screen and reading impossible.
“I can walk today, but I still have some lingering issues,” he says.
Doyle is not alone. Another Alexandria resident, Sarah al-Hashimi, was involved in a horrific hit and run and is lucky to be alive. She also suffered extensive injuries that required months of rehab. To this day she is wary of crossing streets, even when the pedestrian signal says she can walk.
Doyle's collision spurred him into action. Currently he heads Alexandria Families for Safe Streets (AFSS); al-Hashimi is also a member. AFSS is a grassroots coalition pushing to implement a traffic safety policy that started in Sweden in the late 90s in Alexandria. The policy, called Vision Zero, seeks to eliminate serious injuries and fatalities from traffic crashes.
Alexandria has a serious problem with drivers hitting pedestrians
Last year, Alexandria saw an uptick in serious traffic collisions, with the number of fatalities rising four-fold from the previous year.
According to the AFSS, there were 242 people injured in traffic crashes in 2016, 90 of whom were pedestrians — a 25 percent increase over a nine-year average. Despite a downward trend in serious and fatal car crashes, incidents involving pedestrians and cyclists are trending upwards both in Alexandria and nationally.
“At the top of my list, from a protection of vulnerable users, is speed management,” says Jim Durham, chair of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee (BPAC). “About 30 percent of all fatal crashes in the US involve speeding, which is about the same as DUIs. Speeding is killing as many people in this country as DUIs.”
Another problem, according to Durham, is data collection.
Durham called the Virginia state form for reporting crashes “woefully deficient.” He says in a typical crash there might be 30 potential causal factors, but an officer can only check one, instead of the three, four, five, or more factors that may have primarily contributed to the crash.
The form doesn't provide the opportunity to electronically capture all the factors, so we can't know what exactly causes many crashes. However, from the data that is collected, Durham says that speeding is the highest single causal factor listed in police reports.
While the city has identified this issue and is engaging with state officials to change Virginia’s form, there isn't yet a statewide push to improve it. Durham said it would be great if other jurisdictions weighed in on how to change reporting so it adequately informs safety improvements.
Here’s what crash survivors want
Many of these crashes, including Doyle's and al-Hashimi's, could've been prevented. Now there's growing community support to make sure serious crashes don't happen at all.
Alexandria's road to Vision Zero started with the adoption of the Complete Streets Policy in 2011. The policy ensures that streets can be used by everyone, including drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, and transit riders.
“For example,” Durham says, “When they repave a street, they need to look at what makes it safer.”
Durham said the policy was reaffirmed in 2014 when, after two years of advocacy, the city council approved a transportation masterplan that included a recommendation to adopt Vision Zero. From 2014, the city began a two-year effort to update its bicycle and pedestrian chapters of the transportation masterplan.
The City hopes to attain Vision Zero by 2028. That might sound good from political point of view, but isn't good enough for Doyle, whose official tagline is “Implement Vision Zero Now.”
“In January, they passed the program and it said 2028,” Doyle says. “I made a little speech saying 'that's crazy — you passed it, but 2028?’ At 90 people a year, that's more people getting killed and that's pretty gruesome. We can't afford to wait.”
Achieving Vision Zero is a laudable goal, but the lengthy timeline means that unless there is immediate action, more people will be seriously hurt or killed.
For example, Al-Hashimi's hit and run experience is part of the growing trend of serious or fatal traffic incidents. A 2015 fact sheet from the NHTSA indicates that 19 percent of fatal car crashes involving pedestrians were hit and runs.
“To me, that's an insane amount of people who just walk off,” al-Hashimi says. “There's really important data to be gathered by pursuing these perpetrators.”
Al-Hashimi says she had trouble figuring out what to do after her crash. The legal path forward wasn't clear so she tried to go through the Witness Assistance Program, but found it less than helpful because her case wasn't being prosecuted. That’s why she got involved with AFSS.
The city is getting serious
On November 8th, the city released its draft Vision Zero Action Plan for public comment. AFSS says the effort will require, “A combination of immediate actions involving engineering, education, enforcement, and evaluation.”
Crash survivors like Doyle and al-Hashimi hope implementing the plan will achieve concrete safety goals, and ensure that no one else has to live through another horrific experience like theirs.
Correction: There were 242 people injured in traffic crashes in 2016, 90 of whom were pedestrians. Not all 242 people were pedestrians as previously implied.