New Bill Makes DC Poised to Become National Leader in Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety

David Meni, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act of 2015 — a bill introduced to the District of Columbia city council by councilwoman Mary Cheh — could produce some  of the most significant policy changes to street design and pedestrian safety in the city’s history. The recommendations that went on to become this bill were put together by the council’s Committee on Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety, a body co-chaired by the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA) and AAA Mid-Atlantic. As such, it represents a proposal that receives approval from both automobile and cycling/pedestrian interests. The law is a combination of best practices from cities and states around the country, but very few places have all of these provisions in place.  Here are four reasons the law would would make DC a leader in pedestrian and cyclist safety.

1. Beefed-up data reporting would make it easier to respond to safety issues

The bill mandates that the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) publish detailed information on crash data. Currently, DDOT publishes the broad strokes of crash data, like the number of incidents, injuries, and fatalities; right now, the most up-to-date information is from 2010. This lack of nuanced data places a significant barrier on a proper diagnosis of safety issues for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. Cheh’s bill would require more information to be collected for publication, including exact incident location and the “apparent human factors” that contributed to the collision, like speeding or cell phone use. This information would be published monthly, allowing DC to more nimbly respond to any upticks in incidents.

DDOT would also be responsible for identifying bicycle and pedestrian priority areas where safety could be notably improved, on a basis of one per ward. These areas would then be subject to further study on street safety improvements. This ward-based approach could help to decrease inequities in street infrastructure that often comes from a more ad-hoc approach.

2. The “Idaho Stop” in DC would put to rest a long-standing conflict between cyclists and drivers

Cyclists rolling through stop signs or red lights has long been a source of contention and outright ire. Just recently, police in Alexandria, Va. recently started an aggressive ticketing campaign punishing cyclists for “ignoring” intersection signage.

However, there are often good reasons for cyclists to be allowed to roll through intersections — within reason. While blowing through an intersection is never advised (and would not be allowed by the bill), many believe cyclists should be treated with more common sense at stop signs and signals. Both Vox and CityLab have excellent posts discussing why allowing cyclists to roll-through is actually a good idea; the concept boils down to the fact that bicycles base much of their efficiency on momentum, and their very nature implies they should be treated differently than larger vehicles.

The bill would allow cyclists to treat stop signs like yield signs, and treat red lights like  4-way stop signs. This policy is known as the “Idaho Stop;” the potato state has had this law on the books since 1984, and is the only state with a full “stop-as-yield” law for cyclists.

The case of Idaho has provided us with a natural experiment. A 2010 study found that Idaho was significantly safer for cyclists. For example, Boise, a city of over 200,000, was found to have 30 to 60% fewer bicycle-motorist collisions than Sacramento, CA (a city of comparable size and characteristics).

3. Stricter penalties for repeat offenders

The bill includes a provision to increase fines and penalties for repeat traffic offenders, mirroring a program in Hawaii. These penalties would apply to offenses like “speeding, crosswalk violations, and right-of-way violations,” as well as for cyclists that don’t obey the “Idaho Stop.” Under the bill, fines could be up to five times higher for 4th time offenses.

Increasing penalties for repeat offenders has proven effective with more serious offenses, like DUIs, but it’s difficult to determine if they would have a comparable impact on milder moving violations. However, David Dana in the Yale Law Journal makes a compelling case for increasing sanctions on repeat offenders. Dana argues that escalating penalties for offenses like moving violations are a proven deterrence factor. Such a penalty structure can be effective for offenses that don’t carry much social stigma, like speeding or blocking the sidewalk.

This element of the bill would also increase fines and penalty enforcement for those who block bicycle lanes. This  law  has been in effect for some time, but is been poorly enforced. DDOT seems to be getting serious about cracking down on bike lane scofflaws, and the bill would bolster their efforts.

4. Taxi and ride-hailing drivers will undergo additional safety training

The bill mandates training in bicycle and pedestrian safety be given to for-hire vehicle operators, which includes taxi drivers and ride-hailing services like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. This program will be a module augmenting the training already given to such drivers.

While the effectiveness of this policy largely depends on the quality of training given, it can go a long way towards improving relationships between the driving, pedestrian, and cyclist communities.

The fact that this training mandate would also apply to ride-hailing services is a major reason this policy is so unique. While DC already has legislation regulating the operation of ride-hailing services (like requiring background checks for drivers), this bill would mark the first time the District has attempted to augment the training given to ride-hailing drivers.

San Francisco has a similar safety training program for its new taxi drivers, but despite being the home of Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar, the training does not apply to drivers of those services. This omission has caused controversy and allegations of unfairness: while San Francisco taxis are required to have at least one hour of pedestrian safety training and two hours of testing, ride-hailing drivers operating in the same city have no such requirements. By including these drivers in its training mandate, DC could go a step further in encouraging city-wide safety norms.

The DC government has expressed that bicycle and pedestrian safety is a major priority: the Vision Zero plan put forth by DDOT sets an ambitious goal: by 2024, DC’s transportation system will achieve zero serious injuries or fatalities to users. If the city is serious about this goal, passage of this bill is an essential step to achieve it.

The Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Act is a big bill. While there is more to the legislation than the points above, these four elements give the bill great potential to push DC to the forefront of transportation safety policy in the United States.

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