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Virginia fatal car crashes reach highest peak since 2007

Traffic moving down Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk. (Photo by Connor Worley)
Traffic moving down Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk. (Photo by Connor Worley)

A few months after high school graduation, Christopher King and his friends were camping in Williamsburg.

It was the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and an extended outdoors trip seemed the best choice.

One night, the group decided to take their convertible Mustang and drive around the town.

King drove first, but as the evening wore on, he let a friend hop behind the wheel. King hopped in the backseat and didn’t buckle his seatbelt.

When the group turned on a small road near the Williamsburg airport, the friend sped up. As the engine revved, the speedometer needle reached the 80s on a 30-mile per-hour road.

The driver was intoxicated. He wasn’t wearing his glasses which caused impaired vision.

The convertible smashed into a ditch, flinging the car airborne and throwing King out.The others in the car wore their seatbelts and were unharmed.

The driver, who was on probation at the time, took off in a panic, leaving King’s body on the side of the road.

He died at the scene.

King’s mother, Christy King, said her life changed with a knock on her front door that night.

“It still haunts us,” she said. “It's gotten a little bit better, but we still tell people do not knock on our door, don't ring the doorbell, don't unless you absolutely need to. It's just horrible memories.”

Christopher’s death is part of a growing trend in Virginia. More than 1,000 people died in traffic crashes in 2022, the highest number in 15 years. Officials attribute the climbing death toll to increased speeding and distracted driving.

The 2022 figures, released by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles show a 3.8% increase in deaths over 2021. That’s the highest number since 2007. There’s been a 43.6% increase in deaths since 2014.

A part of the fatality increase is due to more drivers as the pandemic diminished, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in its 2021 report.

The total vehicle miles traveled in 2020 fell below the levels for 2019 and 2021. As vehicular travel picked up in 2021 it resulted in a ten percent fatality increase from 2020 to 2021.

Pedestrian deaths grew 36.8% over 2021. John Saunders, the Director of Virginia’s Highway Safety Office says pedestrian-related fatalities are a significant issue.

“We had 171 pedestrian fatalities last year,” Saunders said. “That's an incredible number. Not only Virginia, but I think nationally, we’re trying to get a handle of what’s going on there.”

Data shows a 10.9% increase in fatalities in alcohol-related crashes.

The number of fatal crashes involving a safety restraint rose 12.3%.

Distracted driving dropped 18.8% over 2021. Saunders thinks those numbers can be misleading and don’t tell the whole story of what’s happening on Virginia’s roadways.

“We've always known that we have been under-reporting in the area of distracted driving,” Saunders said. “Most of the time an individual doesn't always say well I was on my phone or I was eating a sandwich or I was looking out a window or whatever they were doing. So it’s very difficult to capture that.”

Eriald Kera is an officer with the Virginia Beach Police Department. He’s noticed two consistent types of fatal crashes in Hampton Roads.

“It comes and goes but I want to say that alcohol and distracted driving, I think, are still leading causes and the effects of of these crashes occurring and subsequently impacting lives in the community in negative ways,” Kera said.

There were 121 crash deaths among Hampton Roads’ seven cities plus Franklin, Poquoson and Williamsburg in 2022.

Spurred by her son’s death, Christy King joined Drive Safe Hampton Roads, a non-profit organization in the region that promotes safety standards and educational programs. Kera also serves as the vice president of the organization.

King has attended conferences and summits to learn and educate about the dangers of driving distracted, impaired and unrestrained. She says it’s imperative for her to do this to carry on Christopher’s legacy.

“That's really where my heart is,” King said. “Because when I see that adult, that parent, or that child all of a sudden they'll start tearing up. And then I know that they'll know Christopher's story, and they'll tell people to buckle up, they won't forget that.”

She remembers her son’s curly blonde hair. His laugh. His charisma. His heart and compassion for others. She cherishes those memories, but it’s bittersweet. She wishes she could create more.

King hopes her work allows at least one other family to avoid that same knock on the front door.

“We never dreamed in 1000 years it would happen to Christopher, but it really can hit you hard and it is real.”

Connor Worley is a Missouri native who creates long-form content in coordination with WHRO’s newsroom and other departments. WHRV listeners will recognize Connor as an occasional on-air host. Connor earned his Bachelor of Arts in Journalism and Print from the University of Missouri and a master's degree in Journalism and Audio at the Cronkite School of Arizona State. Connor enjoys the great outdoors, technology, and music. He lives in Virginia Beach.

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