RICHMOND, Va. -- Standing on a busy street corner, Yesmine Bethea surveys colorful flowers and balloons that surround the name of her granddaughter, Aajah. The memorial to the 16-year-old serves as a small reminder to those who pass by about what driving decisions can mean for others.
Aajah Rosemond died in October 2020. There was a collision between two vehicles at Jahnke and German School roads that spilled over to the sidewalk where she was walking.
“Yesterday was her birthday. She would have been 18,” Bethea said. “I want them to remember Aajah. This was a 16-year-old girl who had her whole life ahead of her.”
Aajah’s family is advocating for stricter reckless driving laws while also appealing directly to drivers, who are the first point of contact for making decisions on roadways.
“If we consider the fact that when we get in our cars in the morning and we drive that we could potentially kill somebody, is that reason enough for you to slow down? Do we think a little past what we’re doing in our own immediate lives? If you’re late, you’re already late. Slow down, the rush is not worth the risk,” Bethea said.
Even while shooting video at “Aajah’s Corner,” CBS 6 spotted dozens of cars zipping past above the speed limit and others blatantly running red lights.
Last week, Virginia DMV announced traffic fatalities in 2021 reached a 14-year high: 968 lives lost, which is basically the size of a student body at a medium-sized high school. While each wreck has its own characteristic, many of those fatal crashes involved speeding, distracted drivers, or alcohol, officials said.
“It hurts my heart when I see it,” said John Saunders, the Director of High Safety for Virginia DMV, who noted 31,000 traffic fatalities were reported nationally. “If I told you that same number of people were going to die on airplanes crashes, no one would get on an airplane. They would stop going to the airport. But we accept it, we say, 'OK, that’s just the price of doing business.' No, it’s not.”
Speeding picked up during the early months of the pandemic, according to Saunders, and has not slowed.
“Folks still think they can driver like that at those increased speeds. That’s what we’re seeing, a higher percentage of fatalities involving speed. People still aren’t wearing their seat belts. In almost 50% of our crashes, people who die are unbelted,” Saunders said.
Saunders thinks a “safe system” approach to infrastructure should be the model moving forward. It takes into account the drivers will make mistakes and places systems place to prevent wrecks from resulting in fatalities.
Saunders said it has shown to improve outcomes in Europe but acknowledged it would take time and money to phase in here. In the meantime, drivers are the ones making direct choices that result in crashes, he said, which is why DMV says “crashes are no accident.”
“Those choices, if you make the wrong choice, are going to have consequences. And you may get away with them, a hundred times, I don’t know, but just that one time,” Saunders said.
One time for Bethea means she can no longer hear Aajah’s laugh, which is why she shares her family’s pain with others.
“Smart people learn from other people’s mistakes,” Bethea said.
“It’s happening. We see it on the news all the time and say, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so sad.' But that could be you. The same person saying it’s so sad tomorrow you’re outside on your phone, tomorrow you’re doing something else distracted. You didn’t know that now you’re that person that hit somebody,” she continued. “We’re planting seeds for people to slow down because who’s next.”
Saunders said those who practice good driving habits can play a big role with friends and family by showing the correct ways to behave on the road and talking about safe driving.
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