DC Drivers Don’t Slow Down in School Zones, Study Says

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DC drivers driving through school zones, where signage directs them to slow down and be more alert to children, don’t reduce speeds and get crashes at the same rate as other roads, according to a new study that provides a snapshot of driving behavior around schools.

According to the report from traffic analysis company INRIX, which reviewed traffic data from 27 schools in the city’s four quadrants, traffic and school zone signs are also not significantly slower, especially around schools with lower-income students.

The accidents were slightly less severe in school zones, the data shows, even if speed and accident rates remained similar, the study said.

The district registered its highest number of road deaths in 14 years last year, drawing increasing attention to the number of injuries and fatalities on the city’s streets. The report supports anecdotal evidence from lawyers and parents about ignoring drivers traffic rules and follows multiple collisions with schoolchildren, who raised the alarm with city officials last fall.

According to INRIX, about 20 percent of drivers drive at least 10 mph above the 15 mph speed limit in school zones. Speeders are more common around schools in Southeast and Southwest Washington, as well as areas with the highest concentration of lower-income students.

“Things like lowering speed limits alone don’t do much to reduce speed,” said Bob Pishue, an INRIX transportation analyst who led the study. “That can be done relatively quickly and it is a general approach, but as a society we have to dig deeper. We need to figure out what to do, especially around those areas with high fatalities, high injuries and low incomes where speeding is likely due to underinvestment over the years.”

The district has policies to improve street safety in areas with a lot of walking children. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) announced plans in November to increase DC police presence around some schools so officers can stop speeding or red-lighting drivers and stop signs near schools. The mayor’s budget this year included an increase in the city’s crosswalking watch program and the addition of traffic cameras to increase automated enforcement across the city.

Bowser promises safer roads through transportation budget

Some residents have asked for infrastructure, such as speed bumps and electronic signs, or a faster process to alert the city when an intersection or road needs a safety upgrade. The DC Council is expected to vote on a bill introduced by Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) that would require a traffic light or an all-way stop, elevated zebra crossings and curb extensions at any intersection adjacent to a school, and that would strengthen traffic enforcement in school zones.

The INRIX analysis was created with a new tool that the company says can help cities analyze accidents, vehicle traffic and U.S. census data to prioritize and assess the effectiveness of road safety programs.

Avery Ash, head of global public policy at INRIX, said in cities like the District — which recently lowered speed limits and expanded signage around school zones — the next step is to analyze the effects of policies with data.

“This is an evolving process where none of these policy changes or mitigation techniques will be a panacea,” Ash said. “What we can do [with this tool] is to provide that real-time feedback to really start generating that loop of constant improvements to these kinds of security-focused programs.”

Pishue said INRIX studied traffic data for the first quarter of 2022 between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., when children arrive at school. He mapped DC accident data and studied the road infrastructure around a quarter of a mile schools.

He found that speeding and the number of accidents differed little between school zone and non-school zone, and that the number of accidents was somewhat over-represented in school zones based on vehicle kilometers traveled. INRIX said about 33 percent occurred in school zones, while only 30 percent of traffic occurs in those areas.

Inconsistencies in the signage and policies of the city’s school zones, the researchers found, can make things confusing for drivers and create challenging conditions for enforcement.

In some areas, signs indicate a 15 mph speed limit in effect for an eight-hour period of the school day, while in other areas restrictions apply when lights flash or when children are present. Some school zones only have signs on one side of the road, while some intersections have restrictions on north-south roads, but not on west-east roads.

“It can lead to driver confusion,” Pishue said.

One positive finding, he said, is that accidents were slightly less severe where school zone designations were present. This can be attributed to the overall slower speeds around schools compared to major corridors where speed limits are higher. Many of the city’s fatalities occur on major arteries. A Washington Post analysis earlier this year found that road deaths hit low-income communities harder.

Highest number of traffic deaths in DC in 14 years, with low-income areas hardest hit

The INRIX analysis found that speeding is more common around schools in southeast and southwest Washington. For example, 22 percent of drivers travel at least 10 mph above the school zone speed limit in Southeast, compared to 14 percent in Northeast.

Speeding is also a bigger problem around schools with a higher proportion of low-income students. About 24 percent of drivers schools near lower incomes travel faster than 25 mph in the 15 mph zones, compared to 17 percent in higher-income schools, according to the report.

Near Stanton Elementary School in Southeast, where a large proportion of students are economically disadvantaged, the analysis found that, on average, more than 30 percent of vehicles on Naylor Road SE drive faster than 40 km/h in the morning when the students walking to school.

On a section of Naylor Road a long block south of the school — between Denver Street SE and 28th Street SE — 55 percent of drivers drive faster than 40 mph, according to the analysis. The speed increase, INRIX found, was partly due to confusing signage.

The data, Pishue said, calls for the district to focus more resources on schools serving lower-income students.

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