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Death in D.C.

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Death in D.C.

On witnessing an urban tragedy October 16, 2018
Public safety

Opaline Bar and Brasserie at Washington D.C.’s Sofitel Hotel was too crowded, so I’d gone out to find another breakfast spot. I wasn’t dressed for the autumn morning chill—the temperature must have dropped 30 degrees from the day before, when I’d arrived in the city for an event—so after walking a few blocks, I started back. Time to pack and get over to Union Station for my New York-bound train, anyway. I could eat at the station.

I stood at the corner of H Street and 15th Street, waiting for the crosswalk signal. The late-morning rush-hour traffic flew north on 15th. The light changed, the walk sign said go, and I began to cross, looking down, somewhat distracted, as I often am. Then—a thud; someone screaming, “What the fuck have you done?!” and an awful sight: a black pickup truck, and the woman it had slammed into as it spun left from H Street into the crosswalk, unconscious on the pavement, her coffee spilled by her side. She was broken and clenched. Her nose bled. I’d never seen anyone killed in front of me, but she looked dead.

Chaos broke out. Someone on a bike stopped traffic. I ran with another witness into Opaline, shouting “Is anyone a doctor?” An Asian-American man, wearing an untucked white shirt, got up at the far end of the restaurant and ran outside to help. Soon, the metro police arrived, and later, an ambulance—the victim’s feet were all I could see as she was loaded into it. The black pickup truck remained where it was; I never got a look at its driver. My body still shook an hour later.

Back home the next day, I learned the upsetting news online: the woman—Carol Joan Tomason, 70, from North Carolina—had died from her injuries. Was she married? Was her husband’s voice the one I had heard screaming? Did she have grandchildren? I called the D.C. cops, who sought information about the incident, and told them what I saw.

The capital region’s streets—far busier than when I lived in the area, back in the 1990s—have been particularly dangerous to pedestrians and bicyclists of late. A few days before Tomason was killed, four high school kids, waiting for their 7 am school bus in Aspen Hill, Maryland, were hit by a car that jumped onto the sidewalk along Georgia Avenue; one of the students, a 15-year-old boy, suffered grave injuries. A few weeks earlier, an Arlington man on a bike had been struck and killed by a car that ran a red light, and another man, on an electric scooter, died after an SUV slammed into him in Dupont Circle. Public concern about pedestrian, cyclist, and scooter safety is mounting.

In early 2015, newly elected D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser pledged to eliminate traffic deaths in the city by 2024. Those efforts have a ways to go. Last year, the Washington Post reports, D.C. saw 30 traffic deaths, up from 26 in 2015. Nearly 40 percent of the victims were pedestrians. Washington’s pedestrian death rate, relative to population, is 46 percent higher than New York City’s. New York is a walker-centric city that has made some effective moves over the last several years to bring down pedestrian death and injury totals.

In car-friendlier D.C., the solutions would be similar. Give pedestrians more room and time to cross wide intersections, via pedestrian “islands” that jut out into streets, and traffic lights that favor walker safety, not driver speed. Lower speed limits, and enforce them. Build more bike (and scooter) lanes and wider crosswalks, which not only protect pedestrians and cyclists, but naturally slow car and truck speeds by narrowing their passageways. Most important, fix D.C.’s entropic subway system, so that people will be less inclined to drive into the city in the first place.

In many thriving urban centers these days, the biggest risk of violence most people face isn’t a random shooting or stabbing but, like Carol Joan Tomason, getting hit by several tons of steel. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Photo: WJLA/Davis Bates

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