Just like when drivers see police cars or speeding cameras, people are typically known to change their behavior when they feel like they are being watched. To test this theory, Washington, D.C is implementing a year-long messaging initiative that targets dangerous drivers, in hopes of reducing serious and fatal car accidents.
According to the Washington Post, the initiative is being run by the District’s Department of Transportation and The Lab @ DC, a government agency which “uses scientific insights and methods to test and improve policies and provide timely, relevant and high-quality analysis to inform the District’s most important decisions.” The program, which is part of DC’s Vision Zero initiative, sends letters through the mail and text messages to dangerous drivers who have a history of tickets, traffic violations, and motor vehicle accidents across the Washington, DC area, “warning them to follow speed limits and pay attention to traffic signs.” Per the Post:
The program is the city’s latest effort to tackle a rise in deadly traffic crashes that has long perplexed D.C. leaders. It comes after previous attempts to increase road safety — such as heftier fines for traffic violators, more restrictions on turns and lower speed limits — did little to slow the rate of crashes and deaths on city streets.
Under the new program, the city developed a list of 100,000 high-risk drivers, which District officials say will be divided into smaller groups — some receiving both a mailer and text, some being contacted using only one method, and others not being contacted at all. After the first round of messaging, expected to start in as soon as two weeks, drivers can opt out of future messages.
The objective of these messages and letters is to educate, create awareness, and notify these dangerous drivers that they should make better decisions while driving. It lets them know that the city officials are aware of their traffic violations, tickets, and crashes. Since humans seem to behave better when they are being watched, this effort aims to have the same effects on dangerous drivers throughout Washington, DC.
Here are examples of what the text messages or letters will say:
- “Someone in your household is driving dangerously.”
- “Your vehicle has a history of speeding, and/ or running red lights and this is placing the drivers and passengers of your vehicle at a high risk of getting into a crash.”
According to the post, “Messaging will include copies of previous citations and will list the financial, environmental and personal benefits of following traffic laws and maintaining a clean traffic record. They also will advise drivers to stop at red lights.” After one year, the city will determine if the program had any positive effects on the number of traffic crashes across the DC area.
Could text messages reduce dangerous behavior?
In recent years, DC has seen a steady uptick in fatal car accidents. With 40 fatal traffic accidents, 2021 was one of the most dangerous years in the area since 2007. In truth, fatal crashes have been rising since the implementation of Vision Zero, and previous efforts to reduce collisions have not worked. This new messaging program, which costs far less than implementing physical changes such as creating safe pedestrian and bicycle corridors, changing roadways or traffic patterns, or even updating public transport, is certainly worth trying. Perhaps the messages – along with the “Big Brother is watching” feeling – will lead to reduction of speeding and traffic violations.
We have one major concern that does not seem to be addressed anywhere – not by the paper, not by The Lab’s website, and not by the Mayor’s office: are these texts going to drivers while they are driving? The mailers clearly go to someone’s home, but where do the texts go? Distracted driving is a serious problem in the District. According to WTOP News, “There were 41 crash deaths in the District of Columbia [in 2021] compared to 26 in 2020, for a 14% increase.” It seems counterproductive to text drivers with a history of dangerous behaviors behind the wheel.
Vision Zero is failing
The messaging program, as we mentioned, is part of the Vision Zero initiative. The hard truth is this: Vision Zero, a nationwide initiative to reduce the number of traffic fatalities to zero, is failing – plain and simple. There are myriad reasons why, most of which have to do with poor oversight and outdated, draconian ordinances about how and when roadwork can be done, but there may be one overarching issue: American roads are designed for speed, not safety. And American culture values the same thing. StreetsBlog USA explains:
Many Vision Zero strategies focus on reducing car speeds by shrinking lanes, redesigning roads, reducing speed limits or simply building highway infrastructure that makes it impossible to speed. But those tactics can be a challenge in a country that’s long prioritized the fast movement of vehicles, ample parking on public streets, and the notion that “freedom” to drive outweighs the oppression of pedestrians and cyclists, whose fatality numbers are on the rise, said [Leah Shahum, founder and executive of Vision Zero Network].
“There’s been a century of investment in certain kinds of roads, certain kinds of cars and certain kinds of expectations that prioritize speed over safety,” Shahum said. “There is a public good that comes with roadway safety; I don’t think we’ve seen leaders embrace that and champion it enough.”
As people who live and work in DC, we really hope this messaging program is successful. If it is, perhaps it can be expanded to reduce other risks, and find a way to make our city safer. But we fear it may be more of a Hail Mary pass than a guaranteed touchdown.
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