Car crashes decreased in Virginia during the pandemic, but deaths went up

By: - June 22, 2021 1:33 pm

Traffic flows over the American Legion Bridge along I-495, the Capital Beltway, on the day before the Thanksgiving holiday November 22, 2006 between Virginia and Maryland. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The number of crashes on Virginia roads plummeted in 2020, according to new data, but the number of traffic deaths rose to the highest level in more than a decade.

A total of 847 people died in traffic accidents last year, a roughly 2.4 percent increase over 2019. Numbers worsened in what transportation officials call the “belt, booze and speed” categories, with a sharp, 16.3 percent increase in speed-related deaths over last year.

While presenting the data Tuesday to the Commonwealth Transportation Board, George Bishop, deputy commissioner at the Department of Motor Vehicles, said the state hadn’t seen fatalities that high since rolling out its Traffic Records Electronic Database System 12 years ago.

“This is the highest number of fatalities in the TREDS era,” Bishop said. “Full stop.”

Bishop said the 2020 fatality number was the highest since 2007, when the state saw 1,026 deaths.

The new data offers a glimpse of how the COVID-19 pandemic affected traffic safety in Virginia, for better and worse.

A screenshot from a presentation to the Commonwealth Transportation shows road safety trends for 2020.
A screenshot from a presentation to the Commonwealth Transportation Board shows road safety trends for 2020.

Pedestrian and bicycle deaths fell by about 8 percent and 38.5 percent, respectively, which officials called a positive trend in a year when more people were walking and biking.

But officials could only theorize about why traffic deaths went up while the number of crashes fell to 105,600, a significant drop from the 125,000 to 130,000 Virginia sees in a normal year.

Transportation Secretary Shannon Valentine said her staff has suggested people may be so distracted in their cars they may not even have time to brake or try to prevent a high-speed collision.

“The accident comes upon us so quickly that we can’t react,” she said.

In crashes where wearing a seatbelt was an option, Bishop said, about 56 percent of the people who died weren’t wearing one.

Though the Virginia General Assembly has recently approved several traffic safety initiatives, including a ban on holding phones while driving, the legislature has rejected efforts to allow police to stop drivers only for seatbelt infractions, which Valentine said had been a priority for her office. Under current law, not wearing a seatbelt is a secondary offense, meaning drivers can only be stopped for it if they’re committing some other infraction.

When a bill allowing police to make seatbelt-only stops failed in the Virginia Senate in 2020, opponents described it as an authoritarian overreach that could have a disproportionate impact on minority drivers.

“As long as I have breath in my body, I will not allow what I saw in Moscow to happen in Virginia,” Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax, said at the time.

Bishop said safety researchers have indicated making seatbelt infractions a primary offense in Virginia could save up to 100 lives per year.

“The secondary law actually does have an impact on the number of fatalities that are unrestrained in a state,” he said.

Statistics show young men in rural areas, he said, are a demographic particularly at risk of dying for lack of seatbelt use.

“It is not by accident that we have messaging that goes to in and around NASCAR events, for example,” he said. “These are folks that need to get the message to buckle up.”

Bishop also noted that traffic enforcement was scaled down during the pandemic, with speeding convictions down 42 percent in 2020, a sign police may have been trying to limit relatively low-stakes interactions with the public while the virus was spreading.

DUI arrests also decreased in 2020, while alcohol-related traffic fatalities ticked up slightly. The fact that alcohol-related deaths were up 3 percent from 2019, Bishop said, was “distressing” in light of the fact that bars and restaurants were largely shut down for much of the year.

In total, Bishop said, a crash occurred in Virginia about every five minutes in 2020, and an average of 2.3 people died per day in traffic accidents.

“It’s very sobering to see these numbers,” Valentine said. “We’ll just continue to try to determine how we can affect these behaviors.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville.