Car Crashes Down, Fatalities Up in 2020

Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

by James A. Bacon

Virginia transportation officials are puzzling over a divergence in road safety statistics during the COVID epidemic last year. The number of crashes on Virginia roads fell 15% to 20% below the level of a normal year while the number of fatalities climbed by 2.4% and serious injuries by 5.3%, reports The Virginia Mercury.

The numbers worsened in what officials termed the “belt, booze and speed” categories, with a 16.3% increase in speed-related deaths ad 13% in “unrestrained” deaths. In crashes in which wearing a seat belt was an option, 56% of the people who died weren’t wearing one.

Traffic safety researchers have indicated that making seatbelt infractions a primary offense in Virginia could save 100 lives a year. Because failure to wear a seatbelt is a secondary offense, drivers can be charged only if they are committing some other infraction. But a bill allowing police to make seatbelt-only stops failed in the Virginia Senate in 2020. Opponents described the proposed legislation as an authoritarian overreach that could have a disproportionate impact on minority drivers.

George Bishop, deputy commissioner at the Department of Motor Vehicles, also told the CTB that Virginia scaled back traffic enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic. Speeding convictions fell 42% in 2020, which, in the Mercury’s words, were “a sign police may have been trying to limit relatively low-stakes interactions with the public while the virus was spreading.”

Speed-related stops fell 42%. Speed-related deaths rose 16%. It doesn’t take much imagination to see a connection between the two numbers.

DUI arrests decreased in 2020 as well, while alcohol-related fatalities increased 3%.