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In 2007, the number of people who died on Virginia roads surpassed 1,000 for the first time in nearly two decades.
That grim toll marked a turning point. Traffic fatalities statewide have exceeded 800 only one year since.
Safety advocates point to a multitude of changes and trends in explaining the drop. Among them: stricter licensing for young drivers, anti-DUI laws, educational and law enforcement campaigns, increased seat belt use, safer roads and better vehicles.
“It is encouraging,” said Stephen Read, a highway safety engineer with the Virginia Department of Transportation. “We’re seeing some great strides, but we know we need to focus our resources.”
Deciding where and how to direct those resources is one of the purposes behind Virginia’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan, a federally mandated document that state officials created in 2006 with input from local, federal and private stakeholders. Officials recently updated the plan for the first time after reviewing traffic data from the intervening years.
In addition to the decline in fatal accidents, the plan highlights an even greater drop in severe injuries. That number fell every year between 2001 and 2010, according to the report. At the same time, the total number of miles driven in the state has remained fairly steady in recent years, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
Despite the successes, 700 or more deaths on the road every year is too many, said Connie Sorrell, VDOT’s chief of systems operations.
One new area of emphasis statewide is how local police departments and other agencies manage crash scenes, Sorrell said. The goal is to get accident scenes cleared faster to reduce the chance of secondary crashes, she said.
The initiative involves a program in which representatives from local law enforcement agencies are trained in crash scene management.
Read, who oversaw revision of the state’s highway safety plan, said secondary crashes at accident scenes don’t represent a large source of fatalities or serious injuries, “but it’s one we think that we can target.”
Virginia’s traffic death rate is lower than the national rate, which has also been dropping.
Mary Ann Rayment, the occupant protection coordinator for the Virginia Highway Safety Office, credited DUI checkpoints and Click-It-Or-Ticket campaigns by law enforcement with helping to improve the state’s safety record.
The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles estimates that nearly 82 percent of people in the state now buckle up. The figure hovered around 70 percent in the 1990s and early 2000s. The DMV produces its estimates through annual surveys done by teams on the road.
As of Oct. 19, the DMV had recorded 608 traffic-related deaths in Virginia this year. Of those victims, 242 were not wearing a seat belt, according to the department’s preliminary statistics.