Image by Mike Maguire licensed under Creative Commons.

Pedestrian fatalities in the District overwhelmingly occur during periods of limited natural light; nearly 84% of pedestrian fatalities from 2015 until now happened during night, dawn, or dusk. Any effort to eliminate pedestrian fatalities will need to identify factors that can reduce the dangers to people walking during darker times of the day.

This is a real problem, but unfortunately discussions about it often blame the victim and insist people must have special brightly-colored clothes if they want to safely walk at night time. That kind of thinking stigmatizes pedestrians for engaging in normal human activity, and clearly isn't the right answer.

DC's Vision Zero plan aims to eliminate pedestrian fatalities and serious injuries by 2024. The program seeks to improve road design, traffic safety enforcement, data analysis, and education for all transportation users in order to meet this goal.

These targeted efforts have the potential to increase safety at all times of the day. But there is a substantial opportunity to focus on those with the greatest benefit during darkness if we want specifically to reduce or eliminate pedestrian fatalities.

My analysis shows dark periods are dangerous for people walking

Nationwide, about three out of four pedestrian fatalities occur at night (74.4%) or during dawn or dusk (3.4%), a total of 77.7% during darker periods. However, District pedestrian fatalities occur even more disproportionately at night (74.4%) or during dawn or dusk (9.3%). Overall, in DC only 16.3% happen during the day, with a total of 83.7% happening at night, dawn, or dusk. In fact, 100% of pedestrian fatalities so far in 2018 and during the entirety of 2016 occurred at night.

According to my analysis of press releases about pedestrian fatalities, the District has experienced eight pedestrian fatalities in year-to-date 2018 and 11, nine, and 15 in 2017, 2016, and 2015 respectively. (The Metropolitan Police Department's annual data reflect when the pedestrian died. Two pedestrians were struck in 2017 and died in 2018.)

Of the 43 pedestrian fatalities covered by my analysis, 42 involved motor vehicle drivers and one involved a bicyclist. My analysis considered the content of 36 available MPD and US Park Police (USPP) media releases that provide brief narratives, supplemented by MPD Major Crash Unit information for the other seven fatalities.

Despite the growth in the District population — including pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers, during the business day — this isn’t when most of the fatalities occur. Only 32.6% occur between 7:00 am to 6:30 pm on Monday through Friday. More specifically, 25.6% were during rush hour as defined by parking restrictions (7:00-9:30 am and 4:00-6:30 pm), with 7% occurring during the business day excluding rush hour (9:30 am to 4:00 pm).

Much of the visible traffic direction and enforcement by DDOT and MPD occurs during these hours, and that likely enhances pedestrian safety during the business day. Slightly more than one-third (37.2%) of fatalities occurred during weekend hours, from dusk Friday until dawn Monday.

Fatalities are spread throughout the District without a concentration downtown. Across all hours, 14.0% of fatalities occurred within the Central Business District, leaving over four out of five outside downtown.

There are multiple reasons why darker times are more deadly

Some conditions can be different at darker times, potentially contributing to these fatalities. Drivers and pedestrians can’t see as far, even with nearly universal streetlights. There are often fewer cars and pedestrians on the road, enabling drivers to go faster while fewer pedestrians may be less noticable. A suboptimal road or crosswalk design might cause a greater hazard at night than during daylight.

Alcohol consumption also often happens later in the day; all five of the fatalities with announced DUI arrests in the press release occurred between sunset and sunrise. Traffic safety enforcement and staff directing traffic tend to happen around school and work locations and during weekday business hours. When the days are shorter in the winter and surrounding months, darkness overlaps with rush hour traffic combining two risk factors.

Each pedestrian fatality is tragic, and no two narratives are alike given the variations in drivers, pedestrians, cars, roads, and atmospheric conditions. But in DC, even more than nationwide, we clearly see most pedestrian fatalities happen during darker periods — yet not every Vision Zero action necessarily addresses this difference when there is less natural light.

What do you think would have the greatest impact on reducing pedestrian fatalities in the District?

Mitch Wander first arrived in Washington, DC over 25 years ago as a US House of Representatives page while in high school. An avid promoter of DC living, Mitch has lived in wards 1, 2, 3, and 6. He and his wife are proud DC Public School parents. He serves as an officer in the US Army Reserve.