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Death Toll Rises on Virginia Highways in 2015

Five decades of reductions in traffic fatalities may have been reversed last year, as Americans drive more and continue to engage in unsafe behavior behind the wheel.

It is difficult to discuss traffic deaths in a positive light. In the United States, motor vehicle deaths have for decades been one on the leading causes of death. Those deaths have a significant impact because they often involve young people who otherwise would be likely to live another 50 or 60 years of a productive life. The sad truth is, every motorist, no matter how careful and conscientious, is at risk of being severely injured or killed by another negligent driver.

The overall number of deaths had been declining for years, the result of government regulations, better vehicle and highway design, and efforts to reduce drunk driving. As measured by vehicle miles traveled (VMT), the improvement is significant. VMT is the number of miles traveled every year, and when divided by the number of deaths that occur, a ratio of deaths to 100 million miles driven provides a ballpark number for the risk of dying in a traffic crash.

For instance, in 1949, there were 7.13 deaths per 100 million VMT. The actual number of deaths was 30,246. In 2014, there were 32,675 deaths, but the ratio had been reduced to 1.08 deaths per 100 million VMT.

This is why 2014 has been viewed as a historically good year. As a milestone, it has been seen as demonstrating the value of all of the improvements made in vehicle and highway safety. Perhaps this becomes obvious if we calculate the number of deaths we would have experienced that year if we had the same death rate from 1949. With the number of miles driven in 2014, the death toll would have topped 215,000 Americans or more than the population of the city of Richmond dying every year.

Has the trend reversed?

The low numbers of 2014 may have been the final year of improving numbers. Last year, the U.S. experienced the largest increase in fatalities since 1966. The nation's highway deaths increased by 7.2 percent to 35,092. What is worse is that this year is on track to experience an even higher fatality count, potentially approaching 40,000 for the first time in a decade. Virginia experienced 50 more highway deaths in 2015.

Federal officials point to continued increases in VMT, which expose more people to the potential for crashes. Low gas prices in Virginia, which has the seventh lowest price for gasoline in the nation, contributes to drivers putting in more miles.

Most crashes are due to the negligence of drivers, whether due to texting, speeding, other types of electronic device distraction or intoxication. Almost a third of all crashes are alcohol or speed related. Safety experts also urge all drivers to buckle up, as half of the deaths involved motorists not wearing seat belts. Being ejected from a vehicle after a crash increases the likelihood of more severe injuries or death.

Fatalities and severe injuries have been estimated to cost residents of Virginia hundreds of millions of dollars every year. If you have been involved in a serious motor vehicle crash because of another driver's negligence, you should contact an experienced attorney at The Law Offices of Locklin & Coleman, PLLC, to ensure your legal rights are protected as you pursue compensation for your injuries.

A call to action?

The Transportation Secretary has stated that the number from 2015 and the first half of this year are a "call to action." In a letter, he asks the public's help in how to better use information on negligent driving to help change perception and behavior.

That is a difficult subject. The trouble with driving is that we acclimate quickly to the routine, and we often forget we are in a metal box, moving with other metal boxes, frequently at more than 100 feet per second.

For anyone who has witnessed the aftermath of a crash where vehicles are reduced to smashed and shredded piles of wreckage, it is easy to think that will change your driving habits forever. Then we move on and memories fade.

We may have to hope for the introduction of more safety innovations, like automatic braking systems, vehicle-to-vehicle communication or perhaps even fully autonomous vehicles before we will see a reduction of highway decline again.

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