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Virginia saw increase in fatal crashes in 2020; historic traffic volume expected for holiday weekend
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Virginia saw increase in fatal crashes in 2020; historic traffic volume expected for holiday weekend

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Weekend traffic

AAA expects that 90% of the 1.3 million Virginians traveling this weekend will be in automobiles.

More people in Virginia died in traffic crashes last year than in 2019 despite an overall traffic decrease statewide during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles data.

With the American Automobile Association projecting historic travel volumes over Fourth of July weekend, state traffic safety experts are drawing attention to the behaviors they say boost the likelihood of death and injury.

Driving behavior — avoiding distractions, wearing your seatbelt, obeying speed limits and driving sober — can curb trends such an uptick in speed-related deaths, which reached a 10-year high in Virginia at 406; nearly 60 more than the 349 in 2019, according to data from the state Department of Motor Vehicles.

Nationally, AAA is expecting 43.6 million automobile travelers — there were 41.5 million in 2019. The overall traffic volume this year will be second-highest to 2019 by 2.5%. AAA expects more than 90% of the 1.3 million Virginians traveling this weekend to be driving.

John Saunders, Virginia Highway Safety Office Director for the DMV, said the agency always urges drivers to boost their own safety and the safety of others.

“We’re doing everything we can to encourage folks to adjust those behaviors ... to protect not only themselves but to take care of everyone else on the roadway,” Saunders said. “Our numbers do not necessarily have to increase if our drivers are making the right choices and the right decisions.”

Over Memorial Day weekend this year, 14 people — two of whom were riding motorcycles and eight of whom were not wearing seat belts — were killed in accidents in Virginia compared to eight in 2020.

Memorial Day marks the beginning of what the AAA calls the 100 Deadliest Days of Summer, the time of year that sees the highest number of traffic crashes — particularly for teen drivers, according to the association.

During this timeframe from 2010-2019, there were more than 7,000 deaths from crashes involving teen driving; more than seven people a day, AAA reported.

“Folks are out going to the beach, a lot of people are traveling,” Saunders said. “We just always see an increase during this time of year. But all year long those same basic behaviors when you’re behind the wheel are so important.”

In Virginia, there were 847 crash deaths overall last year, which was 20 more than the year before. Additionally, the number of people who died because they weren’t wearing a seat belt increased to 343 in 2020 from 304 in 2019. Saunders said this trend in speed issues and crash fatalities was seen nationally.

“Although the number of vehicle crashes decreased during the pandemic, we saw more fatalities related to speed, alcohol, and failure to wear a seat belt. These decisions have heartbreaking consequences that affect families and communities across Virginia,” Secretary of Transportation Shannon Valentine said in a news release last month. “Our transportation agencies are committed to working diligently to reverse these trends so everyone arrives home safely.”

Saunders with the DMV said the lack of traffic this past year played a role in people speeding.

“Because there was less traffic on the roadways that seemed to, for whatever reason, encourage folks to think that they could drive faster, because there was less congestion on the highways,” Saunders said. “And when you get increased speeds, even though you may have fewer crashes the crashes you do have are much more severe crashes because of the increase in speed.”

If drivers continue to watch their behavior and avoid distracted driving — which was the cause of 121 deaths in 2020 — the number of crash fatalities can decrease, Saunders said. Additionally, pedestrians must also stay focused and alert when walking.

A new law came into effect Thursday requiring motorists to change lanes when passing bikers if there is not enough room for 3 feet of distance between them. And at the beginning of the year, a law went into effect that banned holding a cellphone while driving.

The Virginia State Police also will increase patrolling through Monday at midnight under the Operation Crash Awareness Reduction Effort, which intends to lower crashes, injuries and deaths from speeding, failure to wear a seat belt and impaired driving.

The Virginia Department of Transportation will halt highway lane closures and many highway work zones on major roads and interstates until Tuesday to help alleviate traffic.

“That’s to help relieve any congestion and keep lanes as open as possible through the holiday,” VDOT communications manager Bethanie Glover said. “Our overhead message boards do also have a Fourth of July theme to not drive lit, to keep people from drinking and driving over the holiday.”

About 96% of traffic crashes are related to human behavior, Saunders said, and added it is important for people behind the wheel to make the right decisions when driving because there is a shared responsibility to stay safe on the road.

“Lives are fragile, so we have to make the right choices,” Saunders said. “We have a responsibility to work together to ensure that everyone gets home each and every day.”

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