- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Traffic deaths in Virginia dropped 20 percent from 2007 to 2008, marking the lowest number of fatalities on the state’s roadways since 1966, according to a report released by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.

In 2008, 821 people died in vehicle crashes and 69,130 people were injured, according to the Virginia Traffic Crash Facts.

Fairfax County had 29 traffic deaths last year compared with 53 in 2007. In the city of Alexandria, there were three fatalities last year compared with five in 2007. Fatalities increased slightly in Arlington County, from six in 2007 to eight last year.

DMV spokeswoman Melanie Stokes attributed the improved statewide numbers to increased seat-belt use, fewer people driving and federal funding for traffic safety programs.

Ms. Stokes said seat-belt use increased about one percentage point from 2007 to 80.6 percent last year. She said 82.3 percent of Virginia drivers are using their seat belts this year.

John B. Townsend II, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, said that there has been a “conscious effort to curb” driving without a seat belt in Virginia. Driving without a seat belt fastened is a secondary offense in Virginia, meaning a police officer cannot stop a driver solely because they are not wearing a seat belt.

“They still have an ongoing education campaign to get people to change their behavior behind the wheel,” Mr. Townsend said.

Virginia’s numbers reflect a nationwide drop in traffic fatalities, but the state was among the leaders, Mr. Townsend said.

“We’re seeing a much bigger drop in Virginia than in other regions. In 2007, there were over 1,000 traffic fatalities - the largest number in 15 or 20 years,” he said.

Ms. Stokes said federal grants to traffic education, awareness and enforcement programs such as Click It or Ticket, Drive Smart and Smooth Operator have increased by $500,000 to $13.5 million this year.

Most of the crashes occurred between 3 and 6 p.m. and the majority of fatalities occurred in July, according to the 2008 report.

The report said 354 fatalities were alcohol-related. Men ages 21 to 25 were the largest fatality group.

The majority of people convicted of driving under the influence were men, and 25,758 people tested had a blood alcohol content of .08 or greater - a 2 percent increase over 2007. And while fatalities decreased in 2008, injuries increased by almost a half-percent.

The record low in fatalities is important to DMV officials, Ms. Stokes said, adding that officials remain committed to reducing the number.

“We’re real proud of that. But again, we wish it were zero,” she said.

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