Despite Deadly 2022, Traffic Safety Bills Fail to Gain Traction

By Ryan Packer

After 2022—the deadliest year on Washington state roadways since the early 1990—it seemed likely that traffic safety would get significant attention during this year’s legislative session. But following a key early March deadline for bills to pass out of their house of origin, a number of promising bills are off the table.

A bill to reduce Washington’s blood-alcohol threshold for a DUI from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent was a top priority for safety advocates, winning early support from a broad group of transportation sector organizatios, including the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, and the National Safety Council. However, the bill failed to make it through the Senate, in part because legislators opted to debate a bill allowing more police pursuits instead during the final hours before a key deadline.

Another safety bill that failed to advance would have required car dealers to put warning labels on large trucks and SUVs that are designed in a way that puts pedestrians and cyclists at greater risk; the bill would have also increased fines for traffic infractions committed by people driving those vehicles. For decades, federal programs have rated the “crashworthiness” of specific types of cars and trucks, but as Americans have opted for larger and larger SUVs, that rating hasn’t taken the safety of people outside the vehicle into account,

A bill that would have prohibited drivers from turning right at any red light within 1,000 feet of a school, park, or other high-traffic public facility received strong support from walking and biking advocacy organizations but never got a committee vote in either the house or the senate. In 2018, Washington, D.C. piloted right-turn-on-red restrictions at 100 high-volume intersections, finding a 92 percent reduction in drivers failing to yield to pedestrians compared to before the restrictions were added. Based on that data, the district broadly adopted the restrictions citywide in 2022.

There is data showing that Black people are getting stopped at a rate of four times their share of the population, and unhoused individuals make up half of jaywalking stops. [The law against ‘jaywalking’] isn’t being enforced to promote safety.”—Matthew Sutherland, Transportation Choices Coalition

Legislators also weren’t ready to pass a bill that would have prohibited traffic stops for non-moving violations like broken taillights, or a proposal that would have to banned most “jaywalking” stops of pedestrians crossing outside legal intersections. One issue was that there isn’t enough data yet to determine the impact eliminating such laws has on pedestrian safety.

“Certainly [we] want to look at how we reduce disproportionality in our transportation space, but we need to flesh out how this fits into an overall safety strategy,” Marko Liias (D-21, Edmonds), chair of the Senate’s transportation committee, told PubliCola.

Matthew Sutherland, the Advocacy Director at Transportation Choices Coalition, said police use jaywalking stops as a pretext for targeting vulnerable people.  “Folks are being harassed,” he said. “There is data showing that Black people are getting stopped at a rate of four times their share of the population, and unhoused individuals make up half of jaywalking stops. This isn’t being enforced to promote safety.” Sutherland also noted that the jaywalking bill would have shifted more of the burden of pedestrian safety from pedestrians onto drivers, a controversial element of the proposal.

Liias said some bills didn’t advance because they weren’t bolstered with enough relevant supporting data. “I’m really trying to ensure that we’re data-driven.,” he said. “When we talk to vulnerable [road] users, we know right-turn-on-red is a problem. I think we now need to build the evidence and be able to articulate that piece of it, because we’re asking for a culture shift … and I think people are reluctant to do that without the full picture.”

Convincing data didn’t seem to help the proposal to drop Washington’s blood-alcohol content threshold for a DUI to 0.05 percent, however. Utah, the first state to adopt the lower limit in 2019, saw a double-digit drop in statewide traffic fatalities in the year after the new law took effect, without a corresponding rise in alcohol-related traffic stops or arrests. The bill was expected to prevent around 30-40 deaths in Washington state annually, but it received significant pushback from the restaurant and hospitality industries, which were concerned about increased liability for servers and bartenders who overserved patrons. Supporters of the bill, including Gov. Jay Inslee, said they looked forward to its return next year.

Liias pointed to several traffic safety bills that are still advancing where the impacts are more clear-cut. One bill would allow the Washington State Department of Transportation to use automated cameras to ticket drivers speeding on state highways. Another would require drivers under 25 to complete a driver’s education class before receiving their license, eliminating the current loophole allowing drivers 18 and older to get a license after passing a written test. Only around half of drivers under 25 licensed in Washington have received comprehensive driver training and those who have not have a crash rate that’s significantly higher than those who have.

“I knew coming into session that we aren’t going to achieve Target Zero in the next two years,” Sen. Marko Liias said, refering to a goal Washington has had in place since 2000 to eliminate serious traffic-related injuries and fatalities. “I think we’ve put this issue on the map, and now we’re starting to build that comprehensive set of policies that will help us get headed in the right direction toward zero.”

But Liias also noted the significant hurdles to changing behavior, even with the potential benefit of saving lives. “We’re used to doing things across the safety space in one way, and shifting to a new framework and a mindset takes time for folks.”

In the other chamber, Representative Jake Fey (D-27, Tacoma), chair of the house transportation committee, said there has been some progress on traffic safety, citing a bill that will provide hiring incentives to Washington State Trooper recruits: $10,000 over two years for cadets and $15,000 over two years for lateral hires from different police departments. That bill is now in the Senate after passing the House with only one vote in opposition.

Fey told PubliCola he considers efforts to increase the number of police on state roadways complementary with trying to reduce unnecessary stops. “Part of the intent was to make troopers and other law enforcement available for other important work, and not dealing with minor things that have the net effect of targeting certain populations,” Fey said. But with Democrats incredibly divided over police issues, hope for future movement on the issue could be dim.

With nationwide trends, like vehicle design, generally outside of state control also having a big impact on increasing traffic fatality numbers, the best legislators were hoping for was small progress on the issue this session. “I knew coming into session that we aren’t going to achieve Target Zero in the next two years,” Liias said, refering to a goal Washington has had in place since 2000 to eliminate serious traffic-related injuries and fatalities. “I think we’ve put this issue on the map, and now we’re starting to build that comprehensive set of policies that will help us get headed in the right direction toward zero.”