Virginia traffic deaths are back up again. Can road safety improvements help?
Virginia Highway Safety Improvement Program receives over $520 million in state and federal aid
Transportation officials seek to address the rise in traffic fatalities in Virginia. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Transportation officials are spending millions on traffic infrastructure in Virginia in hopes of curbing an alarming increase in traffic fatalities from 2014 to 2021.
In a rare move last month, the Commonwealth Transportation Board voted to appropriate $672.4 million to accelerate road safety improvements across the state.
In 2021, Virginia recorded 968 total fatalities on roadways. By comparison, 700 traffic deaths occurred in 2014.
The solutions included in the Virginia Highway Safety Improvement Program that officials hope will reduce those numbers are backed by data from transportation agencies across the country and the Federal Highway Administration, said Tracy Turpin, the program’s manager.
“We have a high level of confidence that these countermeasures will have a positive impact on the users of highways in the commonwealth, but it’s going to take us a couple of years to see the data and analysis to fully evaluate the effectiveness of those programs,” said Turpin.
The Virginia Department of Transportation typically uses three to five years’ worth of crash data history to evaluate the effectiveness of a program or roll out any countermeasures.
Traffic fatalities were up nationwide in 2021, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The administration estimates 42,915 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2021, a 10.5% increase from 2020.
What’s driving traffic deaths?
Virginia’s last peak in traffic deaths occurred in 2007, when the state recorded 1,026 fatalities. Officials said advancements in automobile safety features — including side impact bags and crumple zones — and a greater presence of law enforcement led to a decrease in traffic fatalities and serious injuries in Virginia between 2006 and 2014.
David Mitchell, deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, said that during that time, Virginia had one of the lowest rates of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the nation.
Stephen Brich, commissioner of highways at the Virginia Department of Transportation, said one factor contributing to the rise could be the overconfidence of drivers.
“We’ve seen a significant increase because people felt safer in their vehicles, their speeds drastically have increased and we’re continuing to see speed as being one of those major factors in the crashes that we’re seeing today,” he said last month.
Vehicles leaving their lane was the leading cause of fatalities and serious injuries between 2017 and 2021, followed by impaired driving and driving through intersections.
Transportation officials, flush with state and federal cash, are looking to infrastructure improvements as one solution to bring down the number of deaths.
“There’s a trend across the nation to do more systemic [initiatives] because we found out through case studies you can take the limited safety funds that we have, and we can spread them farther and have a larger impact on a greater number of communities to improve safety,” Turpin said.
Laura Farmer, chief financial officer for VDOT, said the agency put a stronger focus on safety after state lawmakers passed the 2020 Omnibus Transportation Bill, which created a new fund for infrastructure and behavioral safety initiatives.
Farmer said under the new funding process, any construction funding that becomes available will also trigger safety fund increases. Those funding increases will be appropriated to address statewide proposals and site-specific projects that are particularly costly.
The $672.4 million appropriated by the Commonwealth Transportation Board in September will allow the state to speed up its installation of flashing yellow lights, which warn drivers to yield to oncoming traffic, pedestrians, or bicyclists, while also accelerating locally maintained road projects.
The plan also includes completing safety measures on 200 pedestrian crossings and up to 2,000 miles of two-lane rural roads by 2028.
Staff said the department was able to fully fund the program due to recent state and federal legislation. Specifically, state lawmakers passed the transportation omnibus bill in 2020, and federal lawmakers adopted the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which includes $107 million per year over the next five for Virginia’s bridges.
A total of $520.5 million was included in the program’s six-year funding plan for fiscal years 2023 through 2028.
Virginia also committed $30 million over the next three years to address impaired driving and speeding through outreach and safety programs.
Additionally, Brich said the agency is planning to roll out automated speed enforcement cameras in work zones.
Exactly what is driving the most recent rise in fatalities isn’t clear. At the September board meeting, officials floated ideas including high speeds, the use of drugs and smart devices, and a lack of law enforcement presence due to the decline in officer numbers.
Mitchell said the Department of Motor Vehicles’ Law Enforcement Division is experiencing its own shortage of officers, with filled positions down 20%.
John Jones, executive director for the Virginia Sheriffs’ Association, said a high turnover rate for law enforcement officers has led to fewer officers on the road. He said his colleagues discussed the shortage at a recent statewide conference.
However, he argued the increase in traffic deaths is connected to General Assembly reforms that focused on limiting minor traffic stops.
“The law enforcement effort has been handicapped a little bit,” Jones said, adding that traffic stops helped minimize the number of traffic incidents that have resulted in death or injury.
Jones said the number of traffic arrests dropped by about 31.5% from 274,636 in 2019 to 188,003 in 2021, according to data compiled by the sheriffs’ association from Virginia State Police records.
He said sheriff’s offices accounted for almost 61,000 arrests in 2019 and 48,000 in 2021.
Corinne Geller, a spokeswoman for the Virginia State Police, said much like the rest of the country, state police are struggling to recruit qualified candidates to fill vacancies.
She said the agency is continuing to find ways to be more strategic and innovative when it comes to traffic enforcement and education.
Commonwealth Transportation Board member Laura Sellers, a clinical social worker, said last month she appreciated the interest in the behavioral reasons behind traffic deaths and injuries. However, when the government gets involved in changing human behavior, “it becomes problematic,” she said.
Sellers said there is a very “low probability that we will change anybody’s behavior” by adding speed cameras, changing speed limits, asking drivers to not drink and drive, or telling them to put on their seatbelts.
“People are people and they’re going to do what they want, and we cannot legislate or impact that through the government,” Sellers said.
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