Traffic Safety in the Washington Region

Consistent with national trends, and despite the boom in population and miles traveled, overall traffic fatalities and injuries in the region have declined sharply in recent years. Still, over 280 people die in traffic every year in the Washington region, and about 36,000 people are injured.

Traffic Accidents in the Washington Region


Traffic Injuries in the Washington Region

Causes and Types of Crashes

Major contributors to traffic fatalities and injuries include impaired driving, drivers and passengers not wearing seatbelts, and aggressive driving, which includes speeding. Pedestrian, bus, and motorcycle safety are areas of special concern to the Washington region. Crashes may have multiple causes and involve more than one vehicle type.

Speeding  Speeding-related fatalities rose sharply in 2010, to 107, up from 86 in 2009.  Speeding fatalities now account for 38% of all fatalities, the highest rate since 2004.  Speeding is one of the most readily-measured manifestations of aggressive driving, which includes factors such as failure to yield and reckless lane changes. 

Intersections  In 2010, 90 fatalities took place at intersections, up from 72 in 2009.   Intersection fatalities now account for 32% of all fatalities. 

Impaired Driving   Impaired driving is a major problem. According State data, in 2010, 31% of all traffic fatalities in the Washington metro region were alcohol-impaired, more than the national average of 26%.  The region had 88 alcohol-impaired fatalities in 201o.

Run off the Road.  Run off the road fatalities have fallen steeply, from 180 in 2007 to 89 in 2010.  Run off the road crashes now account for 31% of all fatalities. 

Pedestrians  As population grows and inner suburban jurisdictions grow denser, and more people walk in places where previously pedestrians were not common, pedestrian safety problems have spread. Many newcomers and visitors may not be familiar with traffic rules, which contributes to the problem.  78 pedestrian deaths accounted for 27.6% of the region's traffic fatalities in 2010.   While the number of pedestrian fatalities has been stable, the proportion has grown as other types of fatalities have fallen. Fault for pedestrian crashes is evenly divided between motorists and pedestrians.

Occupant Protection (Seatbelts)  24% of traffic fatalities in the region involve a driver or a passenger not wearing a seatbelt.  However, significant progress is being made to reduce unbelted traffic fatalities, which have fallen from 114 in 2006 to 68 in 2009.

Motorcycles.  40 motorcyclist fatalties accounted for 14% of the traffic fatalities in the Washington region in 2010.  . That is a large number relative to the amount of motorcycle riding that takes place, and motorcycle deaths have been falling more slowly over the last decade than other types of traffic fatalities.  

Heavy Trucks.  25 heavy truck fatalities accounted for 9% of all traffic fatalities in the Washington region in 2010.  This is an increase from 18 in 2009, but still less than 2007, when 38 people died in crashes involving heavy trucks.

Summary by Emphasis Area

Fatalities Table

Geographic Distribution

All areas of the metropolitan region experience traffic fatalities and injuries. In 2010, a reported 283 people died in traffic accidents in the region, including 177 in the Maryland portion of the region, 81 in Northern Virginia, and 25 in the District of Columbia.

DC, Maryland, and Virginia jurisdictions strive to lower these numbers. Unfortunately, the Maryland portion of the Washington region has a particularly challenging situation with fatality rates (7.8 per 100,000 people) significantly higher than DC (4.2 per 100,000 population) or Northern Virginia (3.5 per 100,000 population). Traffic injuries are more evenly distributed.

Regional Safety Programs

While highway engineering and most education and enforcement traffic safety initiatives and programs take place at the State and local level, the region has come together to create several regional education and enforcement programs to combat impaired driving, aggressive driving, and to promote pedestrian safety. Since the Washington region is a single media market, a consolidated regional media and enforcement campaign can be more effective than separate efforts carried out by the different jurisdictions.

The best known of these programs is the Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP), which since 1982 has been using public education and enforcement, as well as work place outreach and programs such as the Soberride free taxi, to combat drunk driving, drugged driving, and underage drinking in the Washington region. WRAP is administered by its own nonprofit with three staff staffers and an annual budget of over $2 million. Sponsors include the District of Columbia, Maryland, Virginia, and the private sector.

The Smooth Operator program has been fighting aggressive driving since 1997, with a combined mass media and law enforcement campaign. With a budget of slightly less than $1 million, the program covers the District of Columbia, Northern Virgini, and the State of Maryland. The Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration Administers the program.

The TPB's Street Smart Pedestrian and Bicycle Safety campaign has been promoting awareness of pedestrian and bicyclist safety since 2002. Using a media wave together with concurrent enforcement of pedestrian safety laws against both pedestrians and motorists, it aims to change pedestrian and motorist behavior and save lives. The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments administers the program, which has an annual budget of approximately $600,000.
There may be potential for similar media and enforcement efforts to combat other major safety problems such as unbelted motorists, or to meet growing challenges such as motorcycle safety. However, resources and administrative arrangements would have to be identified. Experience has been that regional efforts and commitment grow out of State and local efforts.