RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Despite fewer estimated vehicle miles traveled in 2020 due to the pandemic, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is seeing an increase in unbelted fatalities on the commonwealth’s roadways.

According to a Monday release, nearly 10% more people have been killed in crashes this year while not wearing a seat belt. By this time last year, 258 people had died but this year that number has gone up to 283.

John Saunders has been with the DMV for almost two decades. He serves as Director for the Virginia Highway Safety Office, which has seen a statewide and nationwide increase in the number of speed-related crashes in 2020.

“With the decrease of number of vehicles on the roadways, we have seen an increase in speed of those drivers who are on the roadways,” Saunders said, “so they’ve kind of taken advantage of the open road, and we have seen more fatalities.”

While Saunders tells 8News the number of fatalities on the commonwealth’s roadways is roughly the same this year as it was at this time last year, Virginians still are not wearing their seat belts, leading to the rise in fatal crashes in which someone was unbelted.

“We’re at an 85.4 percent seat belt use rate, that’s an observed rate in Virginia,” Saunders said. “That is the highest we have had in the seat belt use rate, but that still means that about 15 percent of our population is not wearing a seat belt, which is far too many.”

According to the DMV, Virginia law requires everyone under age 18 to be properly secured in a safety belt or child safety seat no matter where they are sitting in the vehicle, and the driver is responsible for making sure this happens. The law also requires everyone in the front seat of vehicles to be properly restrained, regardless of age, and those 18 and older can be ticketed.

“Seat belts are something we can all be thankful for this holiday season,” Saunders said. “Enforcement is going to be out there.”

Saunders tells 8News that between Nov. 16 and 29, there will be an increase in the number of enforcement officers on Virginia’s roadways, working to make sure more drivers and passengers are complying with seat belt laws.

However, while the majority of Virginia residents wear a seat belt, Saunders says that’s not enough to protect them from a crash.

“You can do everything right that we have talked about today and still find yourself in a crash situation,” Saunders said. “When you’re on that roadway, everyone’s choice can impact everyone else, so we want you to make right choices, make the right decisions, and be willing to share the roadway.”

When encountering an aggressive driver, for example, Saunders advises that other drivers should back off and stay calm. Saunders also says drivers can keep Virginia’s roadways safe by avoiding operation of a motor vehicle when impaired by drugs or alcohol, making sure they are not distracted behind the wheel, and obeying the speed limit.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), seat belts save more than 11,000 lives in the U.S. each year. In 2017 alone, the NHTSA reported that seat belt use in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 14,955 lives.

“Like a face covering is one of several steps we take to keep our families safe from COVID-19, a seat belt is a vital part of your protection system behind the wheel,” DMV Commissioner Richard D. Holcomb said. “The simple act of buckling up with a quick click has been proven to reduce injuries and save lives if a crash occurs. Make it a routine for everyone in your family.”