By Ryan Nadeau
Video by Reiley Matthews/VCU InSight
Alcohol, distraction or speeding were the most deadly factors for pedestrians and cyclists in Virginia for at least the past three years.
Those factors contributed to nearly 3 in 4 pedestrian deaths and 2 in 3 cyclist deaths between Jan. 1 and Nov. 30.
Crash statistics were initially trending down, but rose enough in the past month that this year has not been an improvement. Total pedestrian-involved crashes are up this year at 1,487, while cyclist-involved crashes remain slightly down at 529. Virginia traffic data is collected using the Traffic Records Electronic Data System.
State data shows pedestrian deaths this year, through November, decreased from 172 to 117, but cyclist deaths have increased.
Carla “Jonah” Holland was one of 11 cyclists killed in Virginia in 2022. She and Natalie Rainer were hit by an intoxicated driver while biking on a rural road in Henrico County. The driver was 18 at the time and was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“The cost ends up being so much greater than just one person,” Rainer said. “In my story, it’s Jonah’s life, but it’s also [the driver’s] life. His life is altered as well.”
Rainer woke up four days after the accident to discover her friend was gone. Even as she heals, and gets back on a bike, the scars remain – on her chest, arms, abdomen, legs and pelvis.
“My life has been touched but I will still have the privilege to live out my life in a full manner,” Rainer said.
The cost goes beyond just the loss of a loved one – there is a loss of safety and peace in the community, she said.
“It creates an atmosphere where people do not feel safe to exist in space and that is unacceptable,” Rainer said. “Maybe people are willing to kind of brush the issue to the side because it doesn't personally affect them.”
Across the nation: How does Virginia compare?
Overall, Virginia ranked 24th in total pedestrian fatalities per 100,000 people last year.
Drivers nationwide hit and killed just over 7,500 pedestrians in 2022 – the highest since 1981, according to GHSA data. Unreported Oklahoma data could make the toll higher.
This means that, on average, about 20 people a day are struck and killed on American roads.
Pedestrian fatalities in Virginia may be down this year, but total injuries are higher, with one month still left to go. Conversely, cyclists are seeing less injuries and more deaths as a result of these crashes.
Infrastructures: Progress in Alexandria
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, stated in an email that these “preventable tragedies” result from a number of factors, such as impaired driving or road design. He added that, while legislation such as his “hands free” law has helped, the complicated issue needs further investment.
“There’s no one silver bullet,” said Alex Carroll of Alexandria’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services.
Carroll manages the Complete Streets program for Alexandria. The program aims to make it safer to work and travel in the region.
Infrastructural needs are a large piece of the puzzle, according to Carroll.
“There are probably very few crashes where you can say there was nothing about the infrastructure here that could have prevented this,” Carroll said.
A recent five-year analysis found that 70% of fatal and severe crashes in Alexandria occurred on 10% of the city’s streets. This data allows programs like Complete Streets to focus where change is needed most, Carroll said.
Localities need money and resources to implement better infrastructure. However, low-cost starting options are available, which Carroll said can provide “90% of the benefit at 10% of the cost.”
Options include giving pedestrians more time to cross at intersections, adding “no right turn on red” signs and lowering speed limits, among others. Reducing speed limits is often controversial, but even small decreases in speed have produced positive results in Alexandria, Carroll said.
A more expensive option is something called a “road diet,” when travel lanes are removed and replaced with measures such as crosswalks or bike lanes to reduce driver speed and traffic. It has helped in places where crossing pedestrians felt like they were in the video game “Frogger,” Carroll said.
Several Virginia localities, including Alexandria, adopted Vision Zero – an international design philosophy that began in Sweden in the 1990s. Its central goal is to reduce traffic fatalities to zero, through belief that pedestrian deaths are preventable.
“We can’t accept the status quo of people continuing to die and be severely maimed on our streets,” Carroll said.
Vision Zero work is a bit like “trying to turn a ship around,” Carroll said – results are not always immediately apparent. While the goal is rather ambitious, she says it’s worth the effort.
“It’s important to remember that, at the end of the day, those numbers are people,” Carroll said.
Traffic enforcement and humanizing the statistics
Lt. Robert Netherland of Henrico Police’s Traffic Enforcement Unit knows how it feels to receive a death notification.
His sister was a University of Virginia student when she was hit and killed by a drunk driver.
“I remember like it was yesterday– and we're talking back in the early 1980s,” Netherland said.
Death notifications are a part of the job, and his experiences allow him to empathize with the over 100 families he’s had to contact.
A number of factors, from impairment to distraction to visibility, contribute to pedestrian and cyclist incidents, according to Netherland. Legislative changes like the “hands-free” law have had reasonable success, but others have made his job a bit more difficult, he said.
Del. Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, patroned a 2020 bill that made several changes to traffic enforcement law when it passed, including a shift in how jaywalking can be penalized. Virginia law now prevents officers from stopping a pedestrian solely because they are jaywalking.
“People just kind of walk where they want to,” Netherland said, and added it has contributed to an increase in pedestrian fatalities.
It decreases the chance of a crash if pedestrians cross at designated intersections, Netherland said. Pedestrians and cyclists are less likely to be seriously injured because vehicles typically slow down at intersections.
Pedestrians do not hold all of the responsibility, Netherland said. All parties sharing the roadways need to increase their awareness, remove distractions and slow down.
Carroll agreed “victim-blaming” language does not help, and emphasized how Vision Zero’s philosophy involves the assumption that people will make mistakes – such as crossing where they shouldn’t.
“If you rely on people to not make mistakes in order to improve your safety goals, you’re never gonna get there,” Carroll said.
Harsher penalties and more direct messaging could push through the “numbness” and encourage all travelers to be safer, Netherland said.
VCU Police began efforts to increase campus traffic enforcement following the January crash that killed university student Mahrokh Khan while she crossed the street. This initiative resulted in over 800 traffic citations between February and May, according to data provided by VCU Police.
Virginia State Police recently launched Operation DISS-rupt, a campaign to target unsafe and distracted drivers. Interstate 64 enforcement on Oct. 19 and 20 resulted in 362 speeding violations, according to data provided by VSP. Additionally, there were 200 instances of reckless driving and 75 violations of the “hands-free” law.
Deaths decreased over Virginia’s Thanksgiving holiday compared to last year, according to VSP. The number of driving under the influence arrests were about the same, though reckless driving and speeding citations were up.
Education and rejecting ‘status quo’
The acceptance of these fatal and severe crashes as “the cost of doing business” cannot be allowed, said John Saunders, director of highway safety for Virginia DMV.
“If we had as many people die in airplane crashes as we see dying on our highways, no one would fly,” Saunders said.
The DMV uses crash and law enforcement data to target its messaging, according to Saunders. It distributes safety messages about how to cross streets, maintain visibility and practice safe driving habits through many partners.
Drivers’ tests ask applicants about how to safely share the road, but the DMV does not design test questions. The Virginia Department of Education does, according to Saunders. The VDOE did not respond to a request for a statement.
Drivers often only take one test to get a license, so continued education is important, he said.
“It’s sometimes awhile since folks have really taken a close look at pedestrians, and being a pedestrian, and how dangerous that is,” Saunders said.
It will take a continued beating of the drum to raise awareness and improve safety, he said.
“We have a responsibility, especially as drivers, to make every effort to do all that we can to ensure that everyone gets home safely each and every day,” Saunders said.
Ending traffic violence as a community
These statistics represent neighbors, family and friends.
“Ultimately we can't separate cycling incidents from pedestrian incidents, and even other drivers being involved in crashes,” Rainer said. “We're talking about traffic violence, which is on the rise.”
Local governments have started to tackle the problem, but it won’t help unless people take accountability, she said, from putting down cell phones to taking the foot off the gas.
“We've got to start to find ways of helping people to understand that we are connected,” Rainer said. “When you see a cyclist on a bike on the road, they're not an obstacle in your way, right? That's a human being … we need to look at each other as valuable.”
VCU InSight reporter Reiley Matthews contributed to this article.
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