Posted: November 30, 2017 at 12:10 am

By Heather Lee Naples, Brianna Clark, and Nayion Perkins

Earlier in the fall, Dylan Brown, a 24-year-old West Virginia University student, was driving a black Jeep Wrangler on Interstate 79 on his way back to school when he ran off the road and crashed. Brown, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the vehicle and sustained serious injuries. He died at Ruby Memorial Hospital on October 21.

Dylan Brown is one of 242 people in West Virginia who have died in car accidents so far this year. The rate of people who die in such accidents in West Virginia is higher than both the national average and that of states surrounding West Virginia.

Experts say that the state’s mountainous terrain as well as speeding and alcohol-impaired driving on its rural roads are the primary factors behind West Virginia’s high rate of vehicular deaths. Indeed, 62 percent of all fatal crashes in the state occurred on a rural road, while 32 percent of deadly accidents involved speeding. In addition, one out of every four fatal car accidents in the Mountain State involved a drunk driver with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or higher, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. So far this year, 236 people have been arrested in Monongalia County for drunk driving, says Monongalia County Sheriff Perry Palmer.

“In my experience, [other factors behind the high fatality rates] are excessive speed and inside distractions such as cell phones,” Palmer says.

Most states in the mid-Atlantic region remain below the national average, but Kentucky’s and West Virginia’s rate of car crash fatalities has stayed well above the national average for the past five years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The number of car crash fatalities in West Virginia is 14.7 per 100,000 people, which is not only higher than the national average (11.6 per 100,000) but it is also higher than rates in most of West Virginia’s surrounding states (Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia). Kentucky is the only surrounding state that also has rates higher than the national average, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The state’s mountains and winding rural roads are also partly to blame for the high rate of fatal car accidents.

“One reason our roads are more challenging is because of the topography of the state of West Virginia,” says David Martinelli, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at West Virginia University. “Rural roads are in many ways more dangerous because they tend to be narrower, and they tend to not get high priority for maintenance.”

With its mountainous terrain and higher elevations, West Virginia often experiences severe winter weather conditions. Yet while surrounding states have shifted more ownership of local roads to municipalities and counties, West Virginia’s Division of Highways owns and has to maintain roughly 95 percent of the state’s roads. As a result, state workers have a tough time keeping already treacherous roads plowed and clear during snowstorms.

“West Virginia is tasked with maintaining many more miles of roadway. This is most noticeable to the public during times of inclement weather,” says Carrie Jones, communications specialist for the West Virginia Department of Transportation.

Some policy makers argue that improving West Virginia’s roads would cut down on car accidents. West Virginia Delegate Barbara Fleischauer (D-Mon County) says that the state will not be able to “move forward without fixing our crumbling infrastructure, which will take more money.”

The recent passage of the $1.6 billion road bond in West Virginia should allow state workers to repave problematic surfaces and improve signage on the roadway that alert drivers to bad road conditions.

“[Some of the] funding that we have can be used for maintaining [the roads],” Fleischauer says.

Of course, improvements made possible by the new road bond will not happen overnight. And even then, people in West Virginia will still face the consequences of poor driving conditions and drunk drivers on the road.

One family from Clay County is still grappling with the repercussions of a car accident caused by a drunk driver more than five years ago. On April 25, 2013, Amanda Jo Brown was test driving a Chrysler van with both of her parents and all three of her children when a drunk driver hit them head on going double the speed limit.

Amanda Jo Brown is thankful that her family was in a van when a drunk driver hit them head-on. She believes they would have been killed if they had been in a smaller vehicle.

“I remember looking over to my left and seeing my mom hanging out the window. She was unconscious, so I thought she was dead,” Brown says.

Although her mother sustained many physical injuries and must now use a wheelchair, Brown’s father suffered the most serious trauma from the accident. He broke his back and neck in four places, fractured his skull in three places, crushed his left eye socket, and had multiple brain bleeds. Almost everyone from the accident was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

“The accident permanently disabled my parents,” Brown says.