Editorial: Virginia stepping up to help curb traffic fatalities

Kaitlin McKeown/The Virginian-Pilot/TNS

Virginia is mounting an extensive campaign, fueled by millions of dollars, to cut the mounting death toll on the commonwealth’s highways and streets. Everyone who drives should also do his or her part.

Alarmed by the recent sharp increase in traffic fatalities, the Commonwealth Transportation Board has voted to spend $672.4 million to step up improvements to traffic infrastructure that studies show can help make roads safer.

The money will be used for highway improvements shown by data collected by transportation agencies across the nation and by the federal government to be effective in reducing traffic deaths. These include such relatively simple measures as flashing yellow lights to warn drivers to slow down for merging traffic, pedestrians or bicyclists. Money will also go toward new safety measures at pedestrian crossings and on two-lane roads.

The need is obvious. Here, as across most of the United States, the traffic death toll has soared since 2019. Across the country, an estimated 42,915 people died in vehicle crashes in 2021, a 10.5% increase over 2020. In Virginia, the death toll was 968 deaths in 2021.

The last time traffic deaths peaked noticeably in Virginia was 2007. New automobile safety features such as side impact bags and crumple zones helped bring that number down for a while, as did an increase in law enforcement.

Now the crashes and deaths are on the rise again. Fortunately, considerable money is available for safety improvements. Virginia’s lawmakers passed an omnibus transportation bill in 2020, and the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 gives Virginia $107 million a year for the next five years to improve bridges. Virginia also has approved money for speed-enforcement cameras in work zones and for outreach and safety programs aimed at impaired driving and speeding.

It’s good that Richmond and Washington are doing what they can. Most traffic deaths should have been preventable, and the soaring number of fatalities is tragic.

Street and highway infrastructure improvements and various safety measures and laws can help and are worth the millions of dollars being spent on them. Unfortunately, it will take more than those improvements, more than outreach programs and more than stricter laws and law enforcement to stop senseless traffic deaths.

There is only so much government can do. The person behind the wheel bears the ultimate responsibility for his or her own safety and that of others on the road.

Ironically, new safety features on today’s vehicles may be part of the problem — the smarter cars and trucks get, the more drivers tend to get complacent about safety. It’s human nature. Feeling invulnerable, drivers feel free to ignore the speed limit and road and weather conditions. They think nothing of using their cell phone to text or talk or check the map or change the music, even now that holding a phone while driving is illegal in Virginia. It somehow doesn’t seem too risky to drive after a few drinks.

Such overconfidence and disregard for the law help explain why the leading causes of serious injuries and fatalities on our roads in recent years are vehicles moving out of their lanes, impaired driving and driving through intersections.

Laws and safety infrastructure can do only so much. The burden of safety on our streets and highways is on each of us when we’re in the driver’s seat.

Being a careful driver shouldn’t be that difficult. When driving, make that your focus. Be alert and ready to deal with the unexpected. If you must tend to something else, find a safe place to stop. Obey the laws — all of them, especially the ones about not driving when impaired. Be courteous and thoughtful when dealing with other drivers on the road, not competitive and vengeful. Even if your vehicle seems almost to drive itself, be constantly aware of the road and what’s happening around you.

Driving safely is, after all, a matter of life and death.