Perspective | D.C.’s unfulfilled promise of safe streets has already failed too many


Matilde Larson didn’t need a report to tell her D.C. was not doing enough to make streets safer.

She learned that when her 24-year-old daughter, Nina Larson, was hit by a car as she crossed a street in Northwest Washington on a Saturday afternoon. Larson, an American University graduate, had enjoyed singing since she was a young child and dreamed of becoming a professional opera singer. She died the day she was struck.

“The number of traffic fatalities speak for themselves,” Matilde Larson said on Friday. “It does not take an audit to see that the system is broken.”

Her daughter’s death occurred on Nov. 13, 2021, six years after D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser announced an ambitious Vision Zero initiative aimed at ending traffic fatalities and serious injuries in the city.

“We will safeguard the lives of residents and visitors as they walk, wheel, bike, ride transit, drive, park, and take taxis throughout the District,” Bowser announced at the time. “My Vision Zero pledge to residents and visitors alike is this: By the year 2024, we will do everything in our power to eliminate transportation fatalities and serious injuries, because no loss of life is acceptable.”

Those are powerful words. But without results, that’s all they are — words. Without results, they are an unfulfilled promise. Under Bowser’s leadership, the city has made notable strides to improve street safety, but it has not done nearly enough, quickly enough, to reach that goal by next year or even come within reasonable reach of it.

On Thursday, the Office of the D.C. Auditor published a report that detailed how the city has failed to dedicate enough funding, staffing and oversight to the issue.

D.C.’s traffic safety strategy lacked funding, oversight, audit finds

“The District took initial steps to adopt Vision Zero engineering goals but the Initiative has not been fully implemented,” reads the report. “DDOT could not document how it leveraged data to identify the most dangerous roadways, meaning it could not show how investments were prioritized by safety and equity. Progress and corrective actions were not consistently reported to stakeholders, and the Mayor and the D.C. Council have not ensured full funding of Vision Zero laws.”

If you read the audit, you will find yourself wading through traffic safety jargon, charts and a list of 21 recommendations. But the takeaway that matters most is that the report supports what safe street advocates and grieving families have long been saying: More action is needed to prevent future deaths.

“We have had enough meetings, proposals and empty promises,” Larson said. “The mayor, police, area commissioners and the Department of Transportation all need to be held accountable. I hope people will stop wringing their hands, offering thoughts and prayers and actually do what needs to be done. They have a report now. What more do they need? More victims? More families destroyed?”

I have written previously about the need for safer streets in the Washington region, and through those columns, I have shared with you some of the stories of people who have been killed on area roads. After I read through the audit, I reached out to several families to get their thoughts on it. They, after all, understand better than any of us what’s at stake if the city doesn’t succeed in reaching its goal.

A grieving father retraces his wife’s last route — then goes further

The report notes how instead of nearing zero traffic fatalities, the city has seen deaths go up nearly every year that has followed the initiative’s launch. “Some 224 District residents and visitors — including children, commuters, and advocates — have lost their lives,” the report reads.

In 2015, 26 people were killed in traffic-related incidents on the city’s streets. In 2021, the year Larson was killed, that number reached 40.

That year saw several children fatally injured. One of them was 4-year-old Zy’aire Joshua. He was struck while crossing a street with his mom and siblings. Another was 5-year-old Allison Hart, who was known as Allie. She was hit by the driver of a van as she rode her bike in a crosswalk with her father. Another was 9-year-old Kaidyn Green. He was struck outside his elementary school and died months later.

At 5, she was killed riding her bike in a crosswalk. Her legacy should be safer streets.

“The fundamental promise of Vision Zero is that every person should be able to move around the city without fearing for their life, or for their loved ones’ lives,” Allison’s father Bryan Hart told me on Friday. “The auditor’s report — as well as our observations from committee hearings, the ongoing scofflaw drivers … the piecemeal approach to infrastructure improvements, the continuing preventable deaths — confirm to us that the implementation of Vision Zero still has a long way to go.”

He described seeing the city’s goal “undercut and undervalued time and again” by Bowser’s administration as feeling like a betrayal of all that families have lost.

“Perhaps the hardest part of this is our very real knowledge that while we wait for the city to take a more comprehensive approach to safe streets for all users, people are still losing their lives in preventable crashes,” he said. “Traffic deaths are violent, sudden and traumatic, and the toll they continue to take on victims, survivors and the residents of our city is heartbreaking.”

Two words that capture D.C.’s unsafe streets: ‘Updated again’

Christy Kwan, the volunteer co-chair for DC Families for Safe Streets, said her first impression of the report was that it did not surprise her.

“In some ways, it felt validating, but horrifying to know what we have been feeling and seeing is true and corroborated by the Auditor,” she said in an email. She said Vision Zero requires more than words and a public commitment; it requires the financial investment to fix streets and the prioritizing of safety. “Further delay puts more people at risk of losing loved ones and having their lives forever changed.”

The audit would not have been conducted if a group of pedestrians and cyclists hadn’t requested it. The report notes that they submitted a petition in 2018. It also notes what happened months later.

“One of the petitioners was cyclist David Salovesh,” the report reads. “Six months after signing the petition, Salovesh was struck and killed in Ward 5 by a driver of a stolen van.”

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