It’s been a long time since 1972, the year when the United States had its all-time high motor vehicle deaths total of nearly 55,000. It’s even longer still to 1937, when our country recorded its highest rate of motor vehicle fatalities per capita of nearly 30. And it was more than 100 years ago when America set the record for deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, at just over 24 in 1921 (a record that’s so far out in front that it’s likely never to be broken).
Cars have gotten safer since those days. And to a certain extent, so have roads.
But there is one variable that continues to vex the planners who would like to keep the fatal crash numbers coming down, and it’s the same one that’s been there all along: When vehicles go too fast for conditions, bad things happen.
Capt. Rob Waybright has seen it plenty over the past 10 years while reconstructing crashes for the Harrison County Sheriff’s office.
Waybright estimates he’s reconstructed between 30 to 40 fatal wrecks during that span.
And “most of the time, it’s speed-related,” Waybright said. “There have been a couple of times where we attributed it to being distracted inside the vehicle, whether it’s a phone or whether they be texting. But almost every time, it’s related to speed.”
Waybright makes sure to couch what he means: “In excess of not necessarily just the posted speed limit, but also due to weather conditions — specifically on wet roads, driving too fast for conditions.”
The good news is that crash deaths both nationally and West Virginia have been declining, at least for the most part, for several years.
The top national motor vehicle death tolls all are clustered in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with recent totals far down the list. In 2020 — the last year with complete finalized totals — the nation’s death total was just under 39,000, or around 15,000 less than in the top three years of 1972, 1973 and 1969.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures also show that West Virginia’s totals have plunged from 372 in 2006, 387 in 2007 and 337 in 2008 to 247 in 2019 and 249 in 2020.
But the good news comes with a caveat. Back in October, the NHTSA estimated nearly 20,200 people had died in American motor vehicle crashes from January through June of 2021, up a staggering 18.4% over 2020 and marking the largest six-month jump recorded by the administration.
The NHTSA also reported that the incidence of speeding and traveling without a seatbelt have been higher since the start of the pandemic.
“The long-term picture is good news, because a lot of progress has been made in reducing the number of people dying on our roads,” said David Zuby, executive vice president and chief research officer for the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
“But the near-term picture is a little bit troubling because a lot of the trends that had been shown as coming down are now reversing,” Zuby said. “And so I think it’s going to take a concerted effort on the part of everybody — the drivers, pedestrians, automakers, the [departments of transportation], the law enforcement — to try to do something about reversing those trends and getting back on a downward trend.”
Motorists today have a lot of advantages over their ancestors who were driving Ford Model Ts in the 1920s, Buicks in the 1930s, or the 1970s version of the Chevy Monte Carlo. Seat belts are engineered better. Most vehicles of today are full of air bags and better-engineered crush zones, plus they have electronic stability control, automatic emergency braking and more, Zuby points out.
When cable barriers and guardrails are kept in good working order (they must be repaired after they’re struck), one helps keep vehicles from crossing the median into oncoming traffic, while the other helps prevent off-road crashes into trees, according to Zuby.
“There’s no hard line, right, that a crash at X speed always results in a fatality,” Zuby said. “Cars are tested routinely at 35 or 40 mph, and the results of those tests would suggest that people can survive those crashes. But as you increase the speed, you are reducing the likelihood of a favorable outcome. When you see even a modern car hit a brick wall or a tree at 80 mph without braking, you don’t really expect anyone to survive. But, it could happen.”
Zuby notes that speed is a persistent problem in crash fatalities, and that about 30% are associated with speeding in some way.
Police reports from 2021 “suggest that my be getting somewhat worse in the last year or two compared to what we’ve had int he past,” he said.
“Obviously when people are driving faster, they’re more likely to get in a crash, because they have less time to react to situations that develop in front of them,” Zuby said. “It’s harder to control the car at higher speeds. And if they do crash, the outcomes are going to be more severe, higher risk of injury, higher risk of death. And that’s compounded by a trend that’s been going on since 1996 where states have been raising speed limits, because every time a state raises the speed limits on the highways, some portion of the people drive even faster.”
West Virginia drivers also are familiar with the conundrum of variability in speeds: When there’s a potentially catastrophic mix of vehicles going too slow and too fast.
That makes it “a challenging environment for drivers,” Zuby said.
“There’s an old study that suggests that difference in speeds is more important than top speeds. But that analysis hasn’t been repeated to show the same result anytime recently,” Zuby said.
“And one of the things about variable speeds is that a lot of states argue that by raising the speed limit, they’re going to reduce the variability of the speeds,” Zuby said. “But in fact, they’re creating more variability, because every time we raise the speed limit, there’s some number of drivers who aren’t comfortable driving that fast.
“So the differential in speeds between different vehicles on the same road is potentially a problem. It’s a risk factor, and drivers need to be aware that not all vehicles are going the same speed. It’s something that needs to be dealt with by safe drivers,” Zuby said.
That variability in speed also is one of the factors in the 889 crashes that killed five people and injured more than 300 in West Virginia work zones in 2021.
The high number of highway construction projects and those grim figures have state and local officials cracking down on work zone safety, led by a call for more enforcement from Gov. Jim Justice.
Much of the work occurs on interstates or other high-speed roads.
“Part of the problem there is a lot of people don’t adhere to work zone speed limits. I’ve driven across West Virginia recently, and Pennsylvania and Ohio, and I seem to be the only car on the road that’s driving as slow as the work zone speed limits suggests you should. And that’s part of the problem, right?” Zuby said.
“Because you’ve got work trucks that may be leaving the worksite need to pull out onto these roads. If people are driving irregular speeds, then you’ve got that differential speed problem when they pull out into the road instead of if people are driving at an appropriate work zone speed,” Zuby said.
“Anytime a worker has to cross the road from one zone to another, he’s at a greater hazard of being injured or killed should he be hit by a faster-moving vehicle. I think a big part of the work zone problem is speed,” Zuby said.
Harrison Sheriff Robert Matheny said most deputies in his Patrol Division are equipped with radar that’s able to survey other motorists’ speed while the police vehicles are moving.
That “gives us patrol as well as speed enforcement,” Matheny said, a necessary force multiplier when the Sheriff’s Office is tasked with enforcing the law across over 400 square miles in Harrison County.
The Harrison Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies in West Virginia do still conduct “stationary” speed zones, but that’s often via extra funding from sources such as the Governor’s Highway Safety Program. And sometimes, they prime focus is on distracted driving, seat-belt use or evidence of driving under the influence.
Law enforcement agencies throughout West Virginia also are starting to mix in a few officers who are trained to detect driving under the influence of drugs.
“With their expertise, they can make an educated determination that a person’s under the influence of drugs,” Matheny said. “Of course, we back all that up with blood tests and lab reports. That’s how we handle the drugged driving. And we do see those, unfortunately. It’s probably equal to the drunk driving in crashes.”
In past years, deputies, state troopers and other law enforcement officers have been stationed in work zones. The police vehicles and flashing lights are designed to slow down motorists. However, the private companies conducting the work usually have been paying the extra hours for the officers to perform this duty, so they’re mostly unable to pursue when some motorists speed through these zones anyways.
Gov. Justice’s initiative is aimed at changing that this year, with Matheny pointing out the stationing of extra law enforcement officers at work zone sites will add up to costly tickets and points on the record for scofflaws.
Marsha Mays, strategic safety planning & analysis engineer for the West Virginia Department of Highways, noted that the state had reached an all-time low in traffic fatalies in 2019. While that number ticked up slightly in 2020, serious injury crashes continued to go down, she said.
“Data for 2021 is not yet finalized; however, preliminary numbers do lead us to expect an increase of approximately 5% in fatalities for 2021,” Mays said. “This will be the second year in a row that West Virginia has experienced an increase in the number of motor vehicle fatalities.”
While the numbers are still excellent compared to historical numbers, that still isn’t good enough for state officials.
“In 2017, the State of West Virginia adopted our current Strategic Highway Safety Plan (SHSP). For the first time ever, the plan laid out the state’s vision to eliminate the occurrence of motor vehicle fatalities on the state’s public streets and highways, while establishing interim goals to reach along the way,” Mays said.
“To reach this vision, the SHSP identified the state’s most severe highway safety concerns and then outlined strategies and actions necessary to mitigate these types of crashes and thus to reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries resulting from them,” Mays said. “Over the past five years, focusing on the root causes of crashes resulting in the majority of the State’s fatalities and serious injuries has allowed the state to experience the most continual decline in the five-year average number of fatalities ever.
“Currently, highway safety partners within West Virginia are in the process of updating the state’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan for the 2022-2026 time frame. While the plan itself will not be complete until summer, much work has been accomplished, including reconfirming that the state’s goal remains to reach zero motor vehicle fatalities,” Mays said.
“The plan takes an aggressive step forward in establishing a target year for obtaining the zero goal in 2050. Additionally, the plan will once again establish the state’s highway safety emphasis areas for the next five years,” Mays said. “The statewide emphasis areas are anticipated to include roadway departure crashes, alcohol and drug impaired driving, occupant protection usage (seatbelts, child passenger safety seats, and helmets), speeding / aggressive driving, and crashes involving older drivers. It is our hope that revising the SHSP will provide a fresh start and once again begin driving fatalities downward toward our goal of zero, because one life lost on our public streets and highways is one too many.”
“If you go all the way back to the beginning of the record for fatal accidents, fatal crashes had been coming down,” Zuby said. “The early part of that progress had a lot to do with reducing impaired driving — alcohol-impaired driving — and getting people to buckle up their seatbelts. From the middle of the 1990s forward, most of that improvement has been due to vehicles getting safer and not so much due to improvements in driver behavior or road user behavior.
“So if we’re going to keep on a downward trend, it’s important to continue both improving vehicle safety but also trying to get at some of these driver behavior issues,” Zuby said. “If you look at the trend in detail, there’s also a strong relationship between the total miles driven in the country vs. the number of fatalities. And so we had a big drop-off associated with the recession that started around 2008. But that was mainly due to miles dropping off, and then the fatalities started creeping back up a little bit. And then they dropped off in 2020, but not as much as anybody thought, and they’re coming back up now as people continue to drive.
“We talked about one of [the factors]: Speeding, right? If people would simply adhere, obey the speed limit, that would help, especially on urban streets where there might be people walking or riding bikes, because those people don’t have protection of a modern vehicle. So that’s one thing. The other is alcohol- and drug-impaired driving, right? We need to get that reduced from where it is now,” Zuby said.
“There are a number of things that could happen. Increased patrolling by the police can help that. Making sure that when people are convicted, they are required to have an alcohol ignition interlock as part of their probation for getting a license back. And eventually maybe cars can be equipped with systems that would detect a driver that is too impaired to drive and prevent him from driving. But that’s something that could happen in the future. And, of course, there’s distracted driving, right? Distractions always have been there, even before there were smartphones. But one of the insidious things about being distracted by a smartphone or other mobile mobile device is that it takes your eyes off the road. And having your eyes off the road is associated with at least a doubling of crash risk. So drivers need to pay attention if they’re going to be safe,” Zuby said.
“And buckling up the seatbelts is the other one, right? For some reason, in the last couple of years we’re seeing an increase in the number of people dying without their seatbelts, suggesting that, for some reason, fewer people are wearing their belts than they were before the pandemic. And that’s something that doesn’t prevent the crash, but it protects you when a crash occurs. And so one of the things that could help turn the fatality numbers in the right direction would be getting more people to buckle up more often,” Zuby said.
Matheny made some of the same observations.
“Overall, I think we have more traffic than we did 20 to 30 years ago. The cars are made better now, as far as safety,” Matheny said. “So you know, it’s kind of a balance. There are more cars out there, but they’re safer. I think education has been good over the last 20 years.
“I think we have less drunk drivers. Drugged driving is fairly new to the scene when you talk about the last 20 to 30 years. Probably in the last 10 years that’s become more prevalent. So I just see more of the same old thing, it’s just shifted indifferent areas,” Matheny said.
For Waybright, where the rubber meets the road is a good place to start.
“Obviously, it’s making sure that your vehicle is in proper working conditions, that your tires have adequate tread depth, that they’re properly inflated,” Waybright said. “Because those two things can directly attribute to a crash where you’re losing control of the vehicle because you don’t have proper road contact, contact with the roadway or the tread to give you that traction.
“Beyond that, it’s wearing your seatbelt without a doubt, putting your phone down, and just being defensive when you’re driving, just always being on the alert and looking all the way around you while you’re driving.”