In the year 2007, 1,026 people lost their lives on Virginia highways, the most since the late 1980s. In reaction, the Commonwealth began several ambitious campaigns to emphasize safety on the highway and minimize driver distractions. The General Assembly passed new laws with stiffer penalties for drunk drivers and also banning drivers from texting while driving in the Commonwealth.
These efforts bore fruit. In the three year period from 2008 to 2010, Virginia traffic fatalities decreased each year, with 821 deaths in 2008 and 756 in 2009. The Commonwealth set a new record low in 2010 with only 740 fatalities. This was the fewest traffic deaths recorded statewide since 1966.
Unfortunately, that positive trend did not continue in 2011. Accordingly to preliminary Virginia State Police data, 748 individuals lost their lives on Virginia roads in 2011. However, despite the slight uptick in fatalities, there were actually fewer injuries than in recent years. 61,418 people were injured in crashes on Virginia highways in 2010, but only 53,884 injuries were reported in 2011. The increase in fatalities was still historically low. As state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller pointed out, "we've seen an increase [in fatalities] this year, but we had a record low [in 2010]." Geller attributed part of the increase to an unusually large number of multiple-fatality crashes in the Commonwealth in 2011. Several of these have been high profile, such as the Caroline County Sky Express bus collision on I-95 that killed four passengers in May, and the underage drunk driver who killed an entire family of four in a fiery crash in Winchester in June.
The increase is also attributable to a particularly deadly Fourth of July weekend. Virginia recorded 11 fatal crashes resulting in 13 traffic fatalities over the July 4 weekend in 2011, over double the tally of 6 in 2010. Four of the eleven accidents involved alcohol. Five of the thirteen fatalities were not wearing their seatbelt.
Geller outlined the top five factors that played a role in 2011 traffic fatalities:
- Alcohol use
- Excessive speed
- Driver fatigue
- Driver distractions such as cell phones
- Failure to wear seatbelts
As to the increase in fatalities, "the encouraging thing is we're not back to those 900 numbers" of fatalities like we were a few years ago, Geller said. "Still, it's a frightening figure." We should all do our part to keep Virginia's highways safe. Together, hopefully we can make this year the safest year on record.