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County Board wants swifter action after most recent pedestrian death

Vision Zero team representatives during the Arlington County Board meeting on Oct. 18, 2022 (via Arlington County)

Arlington County Board members have indicated their impatience for traffic changes at an intersection where a woman was fatally struck by a driver two weeks ago.

During a meeting yesterday (Tuesday), Board members received a briefing from team members from Vision Zero — the county’s initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries — about all the work they do after a critical crash.

But Board members were less interested in the process and dwelled more on getting answers to questions like “How long will this take?” and “What can we do now?” Part of that motivation, according to Board Chair Katie Cristol, was that the death of 85-year-old Gwendolyn Hayes felt preventable.

“Any fatal crash is unacceptable to our community, as I know you feel deeply, as do we. And what feels so difficult about Ms. Hayes’ death is the sense that this is one that should have been prevented, especially because of those who had been killed at the same location before her,” she said.

Scene of fatal pedestrian crash along Little Falls Road in the Williamsburg neighborhood (staff photo)

This was the second pedestrian death and the third notable crash in recent months, and the rash has prompted residents to demand more action. Viviana Oxlaj Pérez died in early August after being struck by an alleged drunk driver on 2nd Street S. and Old Glebe Road. A man charged with involuntary manslaughter related to her death has hearings set for February 2023, according to court records.

Shortly after, a child on a bicycle who allegedly pedaled into oncoming traffic was struck at the intersection of 3rd Street S. and S. Carlin Springs Road. Then, Hayes died at the intersection of Little Falls Road and John Marshall Drive.

All three crashes were near schools: Thomas Jefferson Middle School, Kenmore Middle School and Nottingham Elementary School, respectively. And while school zones are slated to get speed cameras, possibly later next year, it won’t help safety at the intersection where Hayes died, which is just outside the school zone boundaries.

Scene of pedestrian struck in the Williamsburg neighborhood (staff photo)

In light of these crashes, Board members pressed staff to give timeframes for the police investigation into Hayes’ and Oxlaj Pérez’s deaths. They asked when police will choose a vendor for speed cameras, and asked if more red light cameras could be installed. They urged staff not to let new research into this intersection slow them down.

“We’ve got a lot of data, we’ve got a lot of information that doesn’t require a lot of time to initiate original research and study,” Board Vice-Chair Christian Dorsey said. “I would encourage us to use the data that we have and the analytical framework and tools we have to work as expeditiously as we can.”

County Board member Matt de Ferranti said he visited with a neighbor near Little Falls Road who always has first aid supplies ready to take care of people who get into crashes. There have been a total of three fatal pedestrian crashes along a two-block stretch of Little Falls Road near Nottingham Elementary School over the past eight years.

De Ferranti said he has seen videos showing how hazardous the conditions are. These are examples of “qualitative data” staff should use to prioritize changes to this intersection, he said.

“I really hope we can be thinking in weeks and not months in terms of additional action,” he said.

Staff at Arlington’s Dept. of Environmental Services, which builds and maintains local roads, say they’re working on preliminary designs for safety improvements, but are waiting for the facts of the police investigation to finalize these designs.

“We are prioritizing this [intersection],” Transportation and Operations Bureau Chief Hui Wang said. “We are trying to see if there are other data we can utilize without the fresh collection.”

Meanwhile, Police Chief Andy Penn says the conclusion of the investigation depends on the number of medical records and subpoenas police have to collect, which can take a few weeks to a few months.

“In this particular case, I would think that within the next few weeks we will be in a place where we can productively engage in a more detailed conversation,” Penn said.

De Ferranti suggested a temporary stop sign, but Wang argued that is probably a bad idea.

“It is a bad idea to frequently change your traffic pattern because you’re changing everyone’s expectations,” Wang said. “We are doing an all-way stop investigation at this location.”

Hearing the direction of the conversation, Vision Zero Project Manager Christine Baker interjected to assure County Board members that county staffers are taking action.

“When there is a critical crash, the immediate response is for staff to hop on and look at the Google Map and see what could possibly change,” Baker said. “I know it seems like there’s a lot of processes, it’s very clunky and it takes a really long time, but the minute we hear about a crash, we’re online, we’re looking, we’re trying to figure out what the next step can be.”

As for red light cameras, currently they are located at nine intersections and 11 approaches, Penn said.

Staff have studied nearly two dozen other locations and recommended six intersections and 12 approaches for new cameras, which have been submitted to the Virginia Department of Transportation for approval.

Speed cameras are also on their way, albeit likely sometime next year. Baker said staff is coordinating with schools and could have recommended locations this winter.

Despite the stated progress, Board member Libby Garvey expressed dismay at the lag between crashes and action.

“I’m sorry it’s taking so long,” she said.

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