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Nearly half of Virginia’s traffic fatalities in 2021 involved unrestrained occupants

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As traffic officials continue to see jarring road safety statistics, the number one thing they are hammering home is the importance of buckling up.

“Your chances of being seriously injured while wearing your seatbelt is decreased by 45 percent,” said John Saunders, director of Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Highway Safety Office. “You want to wear that seatbelt – it’s the safest thing to do that protects you against everything else. It’s the one defensive thing you can do.”

Saunders said nearly 43,000 people died on U.S. roadways last year and 968 were in Virginia. So far this year, he said fatalities among the unrestrained in Virginia account for about 50% of all traffic deaths where individuals had access to a restraint, a figure he said has “been around for a long time.” In the Bristol region, Saunders said that number is around 57% to date in 2022.

Last year in Washington County, Virginia, of eight traffic fatalities, three were unrestrained, per Virginia DMV’s 2021 Traffic Crash Facts report, which groups unrestrained occupants as persons who are unbelted in vehicles equipped with restraints, or in the case of a child, without a booster seat or a child restraint.

Rich Jacobs, public relations and outreach manager for traffic safety nonprofit DRIVE SMART Virginia, sees a worrisome trend in traffic fatalities linked to what he calls “bad behavior” like speeding, impaired driving and distracted driving.

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“When COVID restrictions went into place, vehicle miles traveled went down both in Virginia and nationally, but traffic fatalities both nationally and in Virginia went up,” Jacobs said. “That is not what we expected.”

Based on Virginia DMV numbers, excluding vehicles without safety restraints, there were 304 unrestrained deaths in 2019, but that number rose 12.8% in 2020 to 343. Last year, there were 334, which accounted for nearly half of all of Virginia’s traffic fatalities, excluding deaths among pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.

“We are on our way to another very bad year traffic statistics wise with speeding, impaired driving and distracted driving,” Jacobs said. “The seatbelt is your best protection against an impaired, distracted or reckless driver – that’s the first thing you should do when you get in the vehicle before you even turn the key is buckle that seatbelt, because it can save your life.”

In Tennessee, there were 412 unrestrained traffic fatalities in 2021, according to Tennessee Department of Safety numbers. Based on department data collected from May 2021 to May 2022, drivers who were unrestrained or improperly restrained were 55 times more likely to die in a crash and were two times more often male. In Sullivan County during that period, an unrestrained driver was injured or killed in a crash once a week, on average, according to state data.

For Saunders, buckling up, in a way, is like tying your shoes before going for a run – it’s just something you do.

“Wearing a seatbelt becomes a habit over time,” Saunders said. “Every trip, every time, everyone needs to buckle up. It’s just the best thing to do.”

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