Guest Host: Matt McCleskey

A 2018 rally in Washington, D.C. for safer streets.

A 2018 rally in Washington, D.C. for safer streets.

A national study from the Governors Highway Safety Association shows that pedestrian death are at their highest rate since 1990.

We take a look at the Washington region’s share of the 6,200 pedestrian deaths that were accounted for on U.S. roads in 2018, and what local jurisdictions are doing about it.

Produced by Ruth Tam


  • Jordan Pascale Transportation Reporter, WAMU; @JWPascale
  • Jeff Marootian Director, District Department of Transportation


  • 12:12:12

    MATT MCCLESKEYLater this hour on the Kojo Nnamdi show, young people have become more outspoken on environmental justice. We'll meet some local activists a little later in the broadcast. But first, a new national study shows pedestrian deaths are at their highest rate since 1990. Zooming into our region from 2007 to 2018 Maryland saw a 25 percent increase, Virginia 18 percent and D.C. 14 percent that despite the rollout four years ago of a major initiative to reduce pedestrian deaths call Vision Zero. So what's going on?

  • 12:12:44

    MATT MCCLESKEYJoining me now, Jordan Pascale, WAMU's transportation reporter. Also Jeff Marootian, director of D.C.'s Department of Transportation. Thank you both so much for being here.

  • 12:12:53


  • 12:12:54

    MCCLESKEYWell, Jordan, those percentage increases seem really high. What does that look like in actual numbers of people killed?

  • 12:13:00

    PASCALEYeah, so this national study looked at the entire states, Maryland and Virginia. In Maryland we're talking 60 people were killed and 53 in Virginia. At the end of last year I looked at traffic deaths in just our region nearby. And, you know, for instance D.C. saw five more deaths -- pedestrian deaths than the year before, a 16 percent increase. So, you know, small size perhaps overall but a big percentage increase. And, you know, one thing I want to mention with this, we're going to be talking a lot about stats, you know, but these are real people with families and so overall, a huge impact no matter the numbers.

  • 12:13:34

    MCCLESKEYYeah, we are talking about percentages and statistics, but that's very important to remember that there's actually people killed in these incidents. Are pedestrian deaths a big percentage of the overall traffic deaths in the Washington region?

  • 12:13:45

    PASCALESo you've got to think about our region a little differently. I mean, we've got a diverse area from rural land in Loudoun County to suburban Montgomery County to a dense urban area like D.C. So circumstances really change in each jurisdiction. In D.C. 15 pedestrians were killed and that made up about half of the traffic deaths last year. And across the region 92 pedestrian deaths made up nearly a third of all road deaths in our area.

  • 12:14:09

    MCCLESKEYWhat are the most dangerous jurisdictions in our area?

  • 12:14:12

    PASCALESo if you look at just the numbers, Prince George's County in Maryland has the highest number. They had 26 people killed while walking last year. And county officials told me that, you know, they have the largest land area, the most miles driven and therefore higher number of accidents and crashes. The county also has higher numbers of people walking as part of their commute which contributes to, you know, more pedestrian deaths.

  • 12:14:34

    MCCLESKEYWell, I imagine it can be a challenge with the different jurisdictions having different type of roads, different types of surrounding areas, whether it's urban or more suburban or even more exurban or rural in some parts of our region. Jeff Marootian, director of D.C.'s Department of Transportation, thanks for being here.

  • 12:14:48

    JEFF MAROOTIANThank you.

  • 12:14:49

    MCCLESKEYVision Zero is D.C.'s plan to eliminate traffic deaths. The deadline is 2024. That's just five years away. What are you focused on to try to achieve that goal?

  • 12:14:58

    MAROOTIANWell, earlier this year we really doubled down on our efforts to reenergize Vision Zero under Mayor Bowser's leadership, and so we've been focusing on a combination of engineering solutions to our roadways, also using enforcement tools and public education tools to drive the number of fatalities down.

  • 12:15:17

    MCCLESKEYWell, how is D.C. actually doing towards that goal?

  • 12:15:19

    MAROOTIANWell, this is absolutely a marathon and not a sprint when it comes to implementing all of these different techniques. And so just over the past several months we have really accelerated our deployment of roadway engineering solutions. We've identified intersections, both small- and large-scale intersections to remodel. And then we've also gotten recommitments from our partners across the district government, other agencies such as the police department and the Department of Public Works who are also doubling down on their approaches.

  • 12:15:50

    MCCLESKEYSo part of it is infrastructure and engineering, things you can actually build or change. The other part, enforcement gets at behavior, whether the behavior of drivers or pedestrians. But in this case primarily drivers or the ones behind the wheel of the very heavy machines that can do such damages to people or cyclists. What do you do to change behavior?

  • 12:16:10

    MAROOTIANWell, it really is a combination of engineering enforcement and education. And changing behavior can come in a number of different forms. What we focus on at DDOT is really reengineering roadways to create an environment for motorists to drive at a slower speed. We know that speed is really the leading cause of fatalities and so we're really focused on combating that.

  • 12:16:34

    MCCLESKEYJordan, as anyone who walks or bikes knows, there are some intersections that are particularly dangerous. I know those are the ones that you're looking at with DDOT, as well, Jeff Marootian, to try and improve. One very interesting case study that's been in the news recently is in northeast D.C. at the intersection of Florida Avenue and New York Avenue. That's right where north Cap goes through where the Wendy's is. Of course right kind of in the middle of that intersection. It has long plagued drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. What is Ward 5 Councilmember Kenny McDuffie proposing as a solution there?

  • 12:17:06

    PASCALESo McDuffie, in his budget proposal to the mayor had suggested using public money to buy the Wendy's through imminent domain, basically tear it out and start over with the intersection.

  • 12:17:15

    MCCLESKEYIt is just kind of right there in the middle of everything. It's sort of an odd location.

  • 12:17:19

    PASCALEIt is. And if you think about people trying to get in and out, there's just a lot going on right there and obviously it's a long history. I know DDOT's had a lot of efforts to try to fix it but...

  • 12:17:29

    MCCLESKEYThe three very major roads.

  • 12:17:31

    PASCALEYes, very major and, you know, a lot of new development, a lot of new housing around there and a lot of people walk in the area. So it's a complicated issue and, Jeff, I don't know if you want to talk a little bit about it.

  • 12:17:42

    MCCLESKEYYeah, it's been in the works. I know you've been thinking about it for quite some time.

  • 12:17:45

    MAROOTIANYes. And to be clear, Mayor Bowser has charged DDOT with coming up with a comprehensive strategy on an accelerated timeframe to fix Dave Thomas Circle. And so my team and I have spent the past several months developing a number of different plans and approaches that we can fix. Not only the circle itself, but also Florida Avenue and New York Avenue that feed into it, both of which have had some serious conditions that we think that we can mitigate. And so we're in the process now of coming up with a strategy that we expect to engage with the public on in short order.

  • 12:18:15

    MCCLESKEYYeah, Dave Thomas Circle, of course, Dave Thomas, the founder of Wendy's so the tongue in cheek there, Thomas Circle a little bit further west in downtown D.C. What sorts of things is the District considering doing there?

  • 12:18:27

    MAROOTIANWell, we have put together a number of different concept plans. We engaged with the community about a year ago. Fundamentally there are a number of questions that we look at whenever we do a major project like this. And certainly all of the land consideration surrounding that intersection and in that intersection are a part of that conversation. So we're looking at what the best most effective way to redesign that intersection could be and we are open to all possibilities.

  • 12:18:59

    MCCLESKEYDo you find that some of the more dangerous areas are where large streets come together like that or are they on smaller streets whereas you said sometimes people are going faster. Is there any sort of most likely scenario for a dangerous intersection or a dangerous location?

  • 12:19:11

    MAROOTIANOne of the core tenants of Vision Zero is using that kind of data to inform our decision making. And we have intersections that have far more severe crashes than that particular intersection. One of them in particular now is under construction, the intersection of Minnesota and Benning Road northeast, and several others that are currently in progress. So we are looking at a number of different locations, some that have major construction required to fix and some that require small fixes.

  • 12:19:42

    MAROOTIANWe recently started implementing left-turn hardening, which folks may have seen which is really designed to slow drivers down at intersections where there's a tendency to make a left turn at a fast high-rate of speed. We've also used the technique of prohibiting right turns on red. We've eliminated some of the duo turn conflicts at locations where motorists could potentially be driving in two lanes making a turn into pedestrians crossing the road. So we're using as many tactics as we can and doing it at an urgent pace.

  • 12:20:13

    MCCLESKEYYeah, but I would imagine it's certainly not a one-size-fits-all for any particular situation. You mentioned right turn on red. There's been some talk recently about banning right on red through the city entirely. Is that accurate?

  • 12:20:25

    MAROOTIANWe have looked at intersections that meet certain conditions in order to do it on an incremental approach, an incremental basis. The District doesn't control every roadway within our city limits and so what we've really focused on are targeting locations where there's a high volume of pedestrians. In particular around schools, senior centers and rec centers, places where we think it could be the most impactful.

  • 12:20:48

    MCCLESKEYAnd how do cyclists fit in the overall conversation? We've had a number of incidents over the past year and in recent months with cyclists killed as well.

  • 12:20:55

    MAROOTIANAbsolutely. Well, Vision Zero is about protecting everybody's safety. And so cyclists are of course a big part of that and we're taking measures to ensure their protection and safety as well.

  • 12:21:06

    MCCLESKEYYeah, because we've certainly seen an increase in bike lanes in D.C. in recent years, but also a lot of folks sometimes park in those or delivery vehicles might be in those.

  • 12:21:14

    MAROOTIANYes. And that's -- we've taken a number of different approaches. We recently issued a draft rulemaking to talk specifically about behaviors -- motorist behavior in bike lanes. We're looking at a number of different ways, enforcement mechanisms to ensure that that type of behavior is limited.

  • 12:21:30


  • 12:21:30

    PASCALEWell, and even, you know, in the best case scenario, if bike lanes are clear and they're constructing, that kind of stuff is great, but there's a lot of circumstances where construction or, you know, delivery drivers blocking -- how does DDOT deal with, you know, construction blocking intersections, blocking bike lanes?

  • 12:21:48

    MAROOTIANWell, we recently announced that we were standing up a rapid response enforcement team really to look at construction sites specifically. And that's something that we hear very loud and clear from members of the public that there are sometimes issues at construction sites that pose a potential danger to pedestrians, to cyclists. And so we are taking that very seriously and ensuring that if we hear about a concern or complaint, we're able to look at it quickly and make any corrections that need to be made.

  • 12:22:15

    MCCLESKEYWe have a couple of calls on the line right now. Let's go first to Mimi from Northern Virginia. Mimi, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:22:21

    MIMIHi. I'm a -- hello, can you hear me?

  • 12:22:24

    MCCLESKEYYes. You are on the air. Go ahead.

  • 12:22:26

    MIMII'm a Uber driver in D.C. and something that just occurred to me in recent days is that I really think D.C. needs some sort of public education program to teach people how to be cautious in crossing the street even if you have a crosswalk. In the past three months I've nearly hit two pedestrians. It's a very dangerous thing. One man, just to give you an example, on Massachusetts Avenue near Union Station, he wasn't crossing in the crosswalks. He decided he was going to run across Massachusetts Avenue, got halfway across, then decided to double back, because so much traffic was coming. I almost hit him. I almost -- I could've killed this man.

  • 12:23:08

    MIMIAnd something similar happened over the weekend. And, I mean, I'm a very cautious driver. Most of the time I'm going 20 miles an hour or less, but it's just -- it's unbelievable how many really bad pedestrian decisions are made.

  • 12:23:23

    MCCLESKEYWell, Mimi, thanks for your call. Jeff Marootian, do you find that to be the case, that it's both -- I mean, goes both ways? Pedestrians also need to make sure they're following the laws and being safe?

  • 12:23:30

    MAROOTIANYou know, I think the important thing to remember is that a motorist is behind the wheel of a vehicle that can kill somebody. And we know that a person who is struck at 25 miles per hour has a 90 percent chance of living. Somebody who's struck at 50 miles per hour has a 25 percent change of living. And so the onus is on all of us to be as safe as we can be, but it's particularly important for motorists to be aware of their environment and their behavior.

  • 12:23:57

    MCCLESKEYWell, particularly referencing speeds, I know you mentioned earlier trying to lower some speed limits. A pedestrian group called ACT for Transit tweeted at us, how about we lower speed limits, a common request from advocacy groups. Is it that simple? How easy is it just to drop the limit?

  • 12:24:12

    MAROOTIANIn a rulemaking that Mayor Bowser issued late last year we actually did get the authority to lower speed limits around schools, rec centers and senior centers. And we're in the process now of lowering all of those speed limits to 15 miles per hour. And we are considering lowering the speed limit on local roads to 20 miles per hour. That's something that has been in the works for some time. And we're looking at how best to implement that right now.

  • 12:24:37

    MCCLESKEYJeff Marootian is the director of DC's Department of Transportation, also with us in studio, Jordan Pascale, WAMU's transportation reporter. We're talking about pedestrian safety and an increase in pedestrian deaths around the Washington region and nationwide. We're going to take a quick break. We'll be back in a minute. I'm Matt McCleskey in today for Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:25:08

    MCCLESKEYWelcome back. I'm Matt McCleskey sitting in today for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking about pedestrian safety here in the Washington region, with me, Jeff Marootian, director of D.C.'s Department of Transportation and WAMU's transportation reporter Jordan Pascale. And Jordan, we've been talking a lot about D.C., but this has been a problem in Maryland and Virginia as well. As you look around the region, are there some other particular trouble spots that have been real issues for pedestrians?

  • 12:25:32

    PASCALEYeah, as I mentioned earlier, you know, Prince George's County had the highest number 26 deaths. There's some stretches there. Montgomery County -- a lot of these, you know, kind of suburban areas with long stretches of roads made specifically for cars. You know, think about some of the places like Veirs Mill Road, Georgia Avenue, places where, you know, cars are going 40 plus miles an hour, and those pedestrian crosswalks are maybe only every half mile or mile. And so a lot of folks, you know, will just cross where it's convenient where they want to go.

  • 12:26:07

    PASCALEAnd this nationwide report said that 72 percent of people killed were not in crosswalk infrastructure. So you've got to think about a little bit between the infrastructure side and the behavior side. If the infrastructure's there maybe people are going to use it. If it's not...

  • 12:26:23

    MCCLESKEYYeah, that gets back to what Mimi had said earlier, who called in, an Uber driver, who said that she had nearly hit a pedestrian who ran across Massachusetts Avenue, not at a crosswalk. So the pedestrian there not making a wise choice, but you're saying in many cases there's not a good choice to make.

  • 12:26:38

    PASCALESure, sure. Yeah, just long stretches and, you know, who's going to walk a half mile or a mile just to cross the road?

  • 12:26:44

    MCCLESKEYYeah, we have a couple of calls asking about distracted driving. Nick from D.C. is asking, what Vision Zero has in place to combat distracted driving. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:26:54

    NICKYeah, so as a person, who drives, bikes and walks in D.C., I'm nearly hit quite frequently on biking or walking. And it's almost always somebody who's on their cell phone. So what is Vision Zero doing to combat somebody who's, like, maybe using their Smartphone while they're driving? Thank you.

  • 12:27:09

    MCCLESKEYYeah, talking -- thank you for your call, Nick. We also had another call asking about texting while driving. Jeff Marootian.

  • 12:27:14

    MAROOTIANWell, we know that distraction does play a huge role in crashes. And so we are really looking at enforcement as a way to combat that. And that continues to be a top priority as it relates to traffic enforcement. We know that, not just texting, but any type of distraction is something that leads to crashes. And so that certainly is something that through enforcement and through consistent public messaging around the dangers of distraction, we are combating.

  • 12:27:42

    MCCLESKEYLet's go back to the phones now. Gloria from Chevy Chase, you're on the air. Thanks for calling.

  • 12:27:47

    GLORIAThank you very much. I'd like to know the percentage of people hit at dusk or dark and your comments on requiring people to use reflective clothing when they're out at dusk or dark. I am in a neighborhood in Chevy Chase that has no sidewalks. At 15 miles an hour at dusk or dark my headlights do not pick up pedestrians walking their dogs or just out for a stroll.

  • 12:28:16

    MCCLESKEYWell, thanks for your call and your question, Gloria. Jordan, do we have a sense of how lighting affects this?

  • 12:28:21

    PASCALEI just read this earlier today. I didn't write down the stat, but it is a large amount at night. And if you think about it, you know, lighting does make a really big difference. Pedestrians are often wearing dark clothes or, you know, cyclists have lights and that sort of thing. But, I mean, if you think you're just walking around at night going to dinner or whatever, probably wearing your work clothes, dark clothes, it's hard to see sometimes. I know DDOT is working on LED lighting throughout the city which is supposed to be a little bit brighter, easier to see.

  • 12:28:48

    MCCLESKEYJeff Marootian.

  • 12:28:49

    MAROOTIANYes. And, you know, the caller touched on something that I think is really important too. It's the overall infrastructure. And so in locations where there are no sidewalks, DDOT is aggressively working to build sidewalks, to add sidewalk connections where there are gaps, especially in areas that are proximate to schools. So there's a lot of work that goes into this really to get safer conditions for pedestrians across the District.

  • 12:29:12

    MCCLESKEYMm-hmm. In terms of the balance between what people driving need to do to be careful, and she was asking about reflective clothing, what pedestrians might need to do or cyclists might need to do to be careful. How does that fall -- I mean, as you mentioned earlier, the driver's the one behind the machine that can actually kill people, but it does seem like there are some best practices that you could employ as a -- I walk all the time in the city. I'm always trying to be very aware of things that are going on around me.

  • 12:29:37

    MAROOTIANYes. And certainly we think that that's a key part is overall awareness. Which is one of the reasons why we are talking about Vision Zero so much is to really engage with the public and remind them that Vision Zero and reducing and eliminating fatalities and serious injuries requires full public engagement too. And so that's a really important component of the work that we're doing.

  • 12:29:56

    MCCLESKEYYou know, one pet peeve of mine -- this has particularly grown since I've had children, but it's stop signs in the district, the D.C. roll through. It's just a classic. You come up and treat it like a yield or a four-way roll. And particularly with kids who might be hard to see over the dashboard of your car or if they're blinded by a mirror or your vision is blinded by a mirror. Does D.C. have anything in place in particular to try to enforce stop signs?

  • 12:30:21

    MAROOTIANWe do use a camera in some locations that's specific to stop signs. But I think as importantly what we're also doing now is really re-approaching those types of intersections to make them holistically more safe. And there are a number of different things that we're doing in addition to just deploying stop signs that make the conditions in that type of intersection more safe for pedestrians and cyclists in particular.

  • 12:30:53

    MCCLESKEYYeah, on my soapbox for just a minute, I would just ask everybody to slow down. Don't try to go so fast everywhere you have to go. Chill out a little bit and everybody stays safer. Jordan.

  • 12:31:02

    PASCALEPay attention, you know? I just had somebody tweeted me, you know, stop starting at the phone, take out your ear buds and just be aware of your surroundings and being mindful of everyone else around you.

  • 12:31:11

    MCCLESKEYYeah. Well, Jeff Marootian, a new director will be taking over D.C.s Vision Zero program later this month. What can D.C. residents expect from incoming director Linda Bailey?

  • 12:31:20

    MAROOTIANWell, we're really excited to have Linda on our team at DDOT. She brings a wealth of expertise and experience. And we have not waited to start making some serious improvements to our roadways and to our intersections. And what we'll continue to do in having Linda running our Vision Zero office will really add that sense of urgency across all of our programs. And we'll consistently coordinate with other agencies as well. And that's something that under the mayor's leadership we started doing this past fall and have continued to do so that all agencies who have a piece of Vision Zero are at the table consistently and are held accountable for what they're doing.

  • 12:31:56

    MCCLESKEYLet's take one more call before we move on to our next segment. Mike Doyle calling from Alexandria, a founding member of Alexandria Families for Safety. Mike, thank you for your call.

  • 12:32:05

    MIKEYou're quite welcome. So we're in Alexandria, Virginia. We're Families for Safe Streets. It's an organization that is very much focused on pedestrians and cyclists and all (word?) users. Virginia does have crashes, does have people being killed. Your show was talking mostly about Washington, D.C. and Maryland. Alexandria, Arlington and other parts of Virginia, like any place where cars and pedestrians are, it's not a good formula. So we, as a group, Families for Safe Streets, we are trying to advocate for safety practices on the part of pedestrians as well as cyclists, but most importantly on drivers.

  • 12:32:55

    MIKEAnd we have the same issues in Alexandria as any urban community does of drivers not looking into turns. Left turns are the most common causes of crashes in Alexandria. And the number of people that have been killed or seriously injured in Alexandria has gone up this year compared to last year, compared to years before. Even though we do have a new Vision Zero program, it's being implemented, things are starting to change, but we still have a long way to go.

  • 12:33:32

    MCCLESKEYWell, Mike, we appreciate your call. Thanks for listening and thanks for taking part in the conversation. Yeah, we certainly didn't mean to leave out Virginia. It is truly a regional issue.

  • 12:33:39

    PASCALEYeah well, and one specific thing with Virginia news-wise is, you know, Virginia's legislature proposed a hands-free cell phone bill, which looked like it was going to pass this year. And then at the very last second, you know, some legislators wanted to be able to hold the phone while they're talking and it scuttled the whole thing. So Virginia, for another year, will remain the last state in our region to not have distracted driving bills that are really kind of hard.

  • 12:34:05

    MCCLESKEYJordan Pascale, WAMU's transportation reporter. Thanks for joining us. Also Jeff Marootian, director of D.C.'s Department of Transportation, thank you so much both for being here for part of this conversation. And thanks to you all for listening. Stay safe out there. We'll be back in just a moment with a conversation about some young people and how their activism is coming to the forefront in our area on climate change. I'm Matt McCleskey in today for Kojo Nnamdi. You're listening to WAMU 88.5.

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