Crash Course: Virginia officials want to crack down on speeding, but the problem is much deeper than that

Every year there's an annual tradition: the presentation of horrifying car crash data and accompanying awareness efforts and safety campaigns. Do they really help?

Every year there's an annual tradition: the presentation of horrifying car crash data and accompanying awareness efforts and safety campaigns. As the Virginia Mercury recently reported, state officials are gearing up to launch traffic safety campaigns with an emphasis on reducing speeding, which could include speeding cameras, stepped-up enforcement, and speed limit changes, because of an uptick in speed-related fatalities.

"In 2020, traffic deaths shot up 7.2 percent nationwide and speeding-related crashes increased 11 percent." VM reported." Here in the commonwealth (Virginia), that terrifying trend meant that 847 people died in car collisions last year with 406 of those fatalities — roughly 48 percent — directly attributable to excessive speeds."

Back in March, the Albemarle County Police announced they were teaming up with the Virginia State Police to step up speed limit enforcement, as recently released data from the Virginia DMV Highway Safety Office indicated that there'd been a spike in speed-related crashes. Couched in statistics, as these kinds of articles often are, the situation doesn't appear particularly alarming, and you can imagine some folks reading that and groaning, "Oh, boy, the cops are going to be out there ticketing more, watch out." But let's get this straight: the human carnage and trauma people experience year after year as a result of driving our cars around is an unrelenting hell.

There were 2,200 car crashes in Charlottesville and Albemarle County since the beginning of last year, resulting in 1491 injuries and 20 fatalities. And those numbers were actually down due to the pandemic. In 2019, there were 2,239 car crashes in Albemarle County alone, and already through May of this year there has already been 705 car crashes in the City and the County, resulting in 429 injuries and 7 fatalities.

Recently, some folks in Scottsville have expressed alarm again at the frequency of crashes on Scottsville Road (Route 20 South). In 2015, Cville Weekly ran a story about how dangerous people felt Scottsville Road (‘Inherently dangerous’: Route 20 claims another life) had become, and many of the concerns today are the same ones folks had back then -- not enough passing lanes/room, excessive speed, growing traffic on the country road, people driving too slow (causing backups), and the continuing perception that Scottville Road is a "killer." In 2020, there were 73 crashes, 64 injuries, and 3 fatalities on Scottsville Road, 15 speed-related and 9 alcohol-related. Through May 2021 there have been 22 crashes on Scottsville Road, resulting in 15 injuries, 2 alcohol-related, 2 speed-related, and 2 seat belt-related. And the alarm and concern has been going on for years. In 2004, 4 fatalities on Scottsville Road made it the most deadly road in the County, and in 2011 the County saw crashes take 21 lives.

"My heart jumps in my chest every time I get passed," writes one Scottville resident on a Scottsville Facebook Group Page, talking about driving on Scottsville Road. "There is no critical thinking on their part, no sense of community and outward thought of the drivers in front of them, only "They're going too slow for ME". And it scares the crap out of me, every time." Others in the group chimed in as well:

"RT 20 between Scottsville and Charlottesville has 2 passing zones. Used to be a third one where Vintage Market is. The road is dangerously curvy. There are many such areas in Va. Perhaps there should be increased penalties in those areas?"

"They need to widen the road and put in passing lanes."

"Since I have lived in Scottsville they have taken away at least 3 passing zones, Vintage Market, Triple C Camp and Viewmont Farm. I also think used to be 2 between Green Mountain and Glendower."

"The speed limit is 55 and that’s fast enough! People need to give themselves more time to get there."

"Route 20 is a KILLER some of the younger generations don’t seem to remember or have never been told that."

For those who have experienced a car crash, lost loved ones, or have been first responders, this annual tradition must seem like a reoccurring, real-life nightmare. Year after year it's the same ritual as police and rescue crews respond to scenes of horror, news outlets report on them, families grieve, the community expresses shock and sadness, and calls for more safety measures are made.

"It's almost like you've been inducted into a club you don't want to be in," said Debbie Shipp, who lost her son, David, 21, in 2011, when crashes in the County reached record levels. "My heart goes out to those families," Shipp told Lisa Provence of The Hook ( in a story you MUST read to get a sense of the human toll these crashes take), thinking of the others who had died that year. "It's just devastating for the families."

However, when you look at the data, what comes into focus is a set of paradoxes. While it's true that the majority of drivers navigate our roadways safely and without incident, it's also true that approximately 40,000 of us die every year in car crashes. While it's true that speed, alcohol, and not wearing seatbelts are contributing factors in deadly crashes and injuries, it's also true that the majority of them are caused by human error, such as driver inattention, perceptual errors (e.g. looked, but didn't see), decision errors (e.g. turned with obstructed view), and incapacitation (e.g. fell asleep). While it's true that narrow country roads like Scottsville Road and Stony Point Road are dangerous, it's also true that, according to 2020 DMV data, there were actually more crashes on Seminole Trail (240 crashes), I-64 (218 crashes), and Richmond Road (90 crashes). While it's true that driving the speed limit, wearing a seat belt, and paying attention can make your driving experience safer, it's also true that you could be killed or injured due to the decisions and actions of other drivers. And while it's true that certain roads, like Scottsville Road, get reputations for being unsafe, it's also true that fatalities don't follow any particular location trends or patterns. In 2003, for example, there were no fatalities on Scottsville Road, and last year fatalities occurred on 12 different roads across the County ( I-64, Rio Road, Scottsville Road, Stony Point Road, Milton Road, Plank Road, James Monroe Parkway, Panorama Road, Secretary's Sand Road, Louisa Road, Richmond Road, and Seminole Trail).

Indeed, we have a strange relationship with the grim reality of traffic crashes, trying desperately to pin them on something specific -- speed, alcohol, texting, older drivers, younger drivers, distracted drivers -- but behind all the statistics, the outrage and concern, the horror and grief, the data collection, the government safety campaigns, the continuing safety improvements of our cars and roadways, there's a stark reality that always gets downplayed when it comes to discussing traffic safety -- our car culture is the real problem.

Allowing millions of humans to drive 2-ton hunks of metal around at 60 mph + across a patchwork of roads and highways without any serious training appears to require a particular human sacrifice, one that is eerily similar year after year. In 1975, the year the U.S. Department of Transportation began keeping track, 44,525 people died in car crashes. Last year, there were 42,060 people killed in car crashes. Statisticians will tell you the numbers may be similar, but that crash death rates have gone down when you factor in the increase in population, the number of cars on the road, and increased traffic volume, but its as if our safety efforts for the last 45 years to keep from being killed in our cars were designed to maintain an approximate death toll despite those increases.

Meanwhile, personal injury law firms and insurance companies have made pointing out the dangers of driving a staple in their marketing efforts. For crashes that occurred in 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the cost of medical care and productivity losses associated with injuries and deaths from car crashes cost more than $75 billion.

“Speeding is a neglected highway safety issue,” declared Russ Rader, senior vice president for communications at the IIHS, in that VM story about Virginia traffic safety concerns. “It’s a factor in the deaths of more than 9,000 people each year in crashes."

That's horrible, of course, but it also means that speeding was not a factor in the deaths of the remaining 33,000 or so people killed in car crashes last year. When it comes to traffic safety efforts, it's like our public safety officials are caring for a dying patient, prescribing pain meds and applying bandages to stop the bleeding, while knowing there's really nothing they can do. Year after year, crash after crash. As Lisa Provence wrote in 2011, "Debbie and David Shipp aren't the only parents this year who've lost a child in a moment that changed everything. Stephen Heim was 19 when he died January 1. Jesse Clark was 21. Alegna Wingfield was 5. Matthew Crawford was 23. Yunze "James" Sun was 15. The list goes on and on."