Photo by mrflip on Flickr.

Today at noon, DC Councilmember Phil Mendelson is holding a hearing on bicycle and pedestrian safety enforcement. Here is my draft testimony. Comments are welcome.

Mr. Chairman,

Last April, Constance Holden was bicycling home from her job at the journal Science when a military truck backed over her while setting up for a motorcade, killing her. The National Guard said that they are sorry, but that’s all that ever happened, at least as far as has been reported. Has anything even been done to try to prevent this from happening again?

In July, 10-year-old Zachary Hodges, a visitor to Washington with his family, was killed crossing a street in Georgetown. Initial reports said the incident was “under investigation,” but as far as I can tell from searching, no further information was ever released nor any other steps taken.

No other kind of human death seems to yield so little concern and action. Children choking lead to product recalls. Children caught in the crossfire of drug wars lead to increased police presence and debates over how to fight gangs. But children killed in the streets are too often simply dismissed as inevitable and disregarded.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know what behavior is dangerous. Speeding is dangerous. Making hasty turns, trying to beat a light, without looking for people on bikes or on foot is dangerous. People can still reach their destinations fairly quickly without resorting to these behaviors.

Our goal must not be to exact crippling revenge on people who honestly make mistakes, but neither can we simply throw up our hands and say, “it was an accident,” and write off these fatalities as inevitable. They are entirely avoidable through better behavior by all road users, enforcement against dangerous behavior, and better road design.

I want to discuss two specific ways we can take immediate steps toward solving this problem: deploying more traffic cameras and releasing better data.

Psychologically, facing a very severe penalty for a crime, but a very low chance of being caught, doesn’t change people’s behavior. That’s why cranking up sentence lengths hasn’t stopped crime. Instead, if someone knows there’s a good chance they’ll get caught but may not be as severely punished if they are, they’re much less likely to break that law.

This applies to traffic just as it does to street crime. A recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that traffic cameras, even with small penalties, are very effective at reducing fatal traffic crashes, far more than police sitting on the rare street corner to pull over drivers.

Therefore, I hope you will fully support MPD’s current effort to deploy more cameras that detect a wider range of dangerous driving behavior.

Secondly, we need better information about these incidents. Where are these crashes occurring? Why? What have the consequences been?

Greater Greater Washington, Struck in DC, TBD On Foot, and other blogs and news outlets have been trying to report on the crashes that take place every day. The purpose is to raise awareness among all road users, and to help residents and policymakers better understand the problem so we may better find fair and equitable solutions.

However, while serious crashes draw press reports of the initial incident, we have been unable to reliably get reports of more minor incidents, besides the DDOT data which comes out only yearly. For a time, a public information officer for DC Fire and EMS was reporting via Twitter most incidents where a pedestrian or cyclist was struck. However, more recently these reports have slowed dramatically, and they never encompassed all crashes.

Likewise, it is very difficult if not impossible to get copies of police reports of a crash, and to find out how the issue was ultimately disposed of.

Just as many DC agencies have created feeds of downloadable data for 311 requests, reported crimes, building permit applications, and more, I’d like to see Fire and EMS publish a feed of incidents to which they respond. Then, MPD should devise a process to release the reports from crash investigations, along with whether those investigations led to a ticket, a referral to prosecutors, or no action at all.

A number of countries have adopted “Vision Zero” initiatives which set concrete targets for reducing fatalities on the roadways. We can and should do the same. We can’t eliminate every crash, but we can stop many of them, and effective enforcement is key. With better data, residents can better understand the causes and policy analysts can determine the easiest and best ways of reducing fatalities. Thank you.