Group urges D.C. to crack down on scofflaws to protect pedestrians

Local,DC,Transportation,Kytja Weir

An influential nonprofit group is calling for the District to ban pedestrians from listening to music, chatting on cell phones or texting when crossing local streets.

The Council for Court Excellence issued a report on protecting pedestrians this week, urging the District to both toughen its laws and increase enforcement against wayward motorists, bicyclists and pedestrians to help reduce pedestrian injuries.

"These are preventable," said Dr. Edward J. Burger, a healthcare policy expert who led the effort.

Incidents in 2010
Pedestrian 73814
Bicyclist injuries 3362
Source: District Department of Transportation

The group made up mainly of lawyers, judges and business leaders calls for the D.C. police to increase its traffic safety unit. It recommends the city ban all electronic devices in moving cars -- a step further than the current rule requiring hands-free devices for cell phone users. It also seeks to limit such devices for bicyclists and most notably for pedestrians when they cross streets.

The District is one of the nation's most walkable cities, with many taking to the sidewalks because of the congested roadways. But it also has a high number of pedestrian deaths. The group took on the project after learning that the local fatality rate in 2005 exceeded the rates of Boston, New York and San Francisco. Last year, the numbers improved. But still 11 pedestrians were killed and two bicyclists lost their lives, according to the District Department of Transportation. Typically another 700 are injured.

Part of the problem is cultural, Burger said. In California, he said, if a pedestrian steps off the curb, the traffic stops. "What does it take to remake the cultural practices of the District of Columbia?"

The 30-year-old nonprofit council traditionally has tackled issues directly involving the court system.

"It was a little tangential to the activities of the Council of Court of Excellence," Burger said. "A number of us perceived that there were contributions that could be made."

The group compared enforcement of traffic laws and penalties in D.C. versus those in neighboring Virginia and Maryland, but also Seattle and Portland, Ore., and found the District trailed far below. Part of the problem has been that enforcement was not seen as a way for police to advance their careers, a less sexy task to cite a pedestrian than chase down a robber.

The D.C. Council and police increased some fines since the group began its study, Burger said. "They have added to it but the job isn't done yet," he said.

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