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Friday, Sept. 16, 2022

Last year, traffic fatalities in Virginia skyrocketed. After slowly climbing from the low 700s in 2015 to 791 in 2020, fatal crashes jumped to 903 in 2021, according to the Virginia Department of Transportation.

And it’s not just happening here. Across the country, the number of deadly car crashes reached a 16-year high in 2021. Early national estimates show the numbers aren’t dropping.

There’s been a lot of work done to try and understand why roadways are becoming more dangerous. Data show that the spike started during the pandemic. One theory is that as the roads cleared out during lockdown, people started driving more recklessly. That might explain why the overall number of crashes in Virginia dropped in 2020, but roadway deaths still increased.

Here’s more from Virginia Mercury on why traffic fatalities rose during the pandemic.

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Now, traffic is back to more or less pre-pandemic levels, and fatalities continue rising. Traffic engineers believe some of this is down to people continuing the reckless driving habits they picked up during the pandemic, and from driving while using mobile devices.

“Loosely speaking, I think drivers are getting worse,” said Brennan Duncan, Charlottesville’s traffic engineer. “There are no big changes in the roadways themselves. I think more people are driving while distracted, by their phones, stuff like that.”

Read more from CNBC about how both vehicles and drivers’ behaviors have changed.

In the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle, Nelson, Fluvanna and Greene counties, traffic related deaths increased from the mid 20s to 30 in 2020 and 33 in 2021. The data is less conclusive within Charlottesville city limits, where around one or two people die on the road each year. That number did jump to five, though, in 2020. Four of those wrecks happened on a single stretch of road: 5th Street.

Explore data on traffic crashes across the state on the Virginia Department of Transportation’s crash analysis tool.

Picture shows a tree in the median of a road with cars passing on both sides. A cardboard sign is attached to the tree trunk that reads, "City Council Fix this Road." The "x" in "fix" isa cross bones. The "o" in "road" is a skull.
Credit: Credit: Jessie Higgins/Charlottesville Tomorrow

City plans to hire an engineering firm to find ways to make ‘race track’ Fifth Street safer

Regardless of what caused the wrecks, the city is now looking into ways to make the roadway safer, Duncan said. They’ve already taken several precautions. Lighted signs warning of traffic lights are now posted along the corridor. The city also reduced the road’s speed limit from 45 mph to 40 mph.

Any further changes get more expensive — and contentious. One of the main issues with the road is that it is wide, straight and unblocked. As a main thoroughfare connecting the city’s downtown with Interstate 64, it was designed to move traffic efficiently in and out of town. But that means cars can reach high speeds. Multiple people have died crashing into one of the trees growing in the road’s median.

Narrowing the roadway or adding obstacles like stop lights or roundabouts will slow traffic, possibly making the road safer, Duncan said. That will also likely lead to more congestion during peak travel hours.

“Anything that comes with improvements in one area is going to have a negative effect in another area,” Duncan said. “So we just want to make sure that everyone is aware and on board with what those negative effects might be.”

The city has hired a firm to study this section of Fifth Street and return with suggestions to make it safer sometime this winter.

Thanks for reading!

Jessie Higgins, managing editor 

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Jessie Higgins

I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.