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Editorial: Virginia stepping up to help curb traffic fatalities

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In this Feb. 3 file photo, traffic moves along 21st Street in Virginia Beach.

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. ...

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. ...

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.

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