Virginia’s Safety Bills Cover Seat Belts, Cell Phones, Red Light Cameras

January 30, 2006

Building and paying for highways is the top issue of the 2006 General Assembly, but legislators also are considering a raft of measures dealing with motorists’ behavior on the blacktop.

Many of the traffic safety issues are familiar: toughening the state’s seat-belt law, prohibiting teenage drivers from using cell phones and allowing some localities to use cameras to catch red light runners, for example.

Legislators already have rejected bills to repeal Virginia’s ban on radar detectors and to double the fine for passing a stopped school bus. A Senate committee has killed legislation prohibiting all motorists from using cell phones while driving, but a House bill restricting drivers to hands-free phones is still pending.

“As of today, we’re doing OK,” Nancy Rodrigues of Virginia Association of Driver Education and Traffic Safety said Thursday, hours after the defeat of the radar-detector ban.

With that victory behind them, traffic safety advocates are focusing on the next big battles over the seat belt and “photo red” bills. A subcommittee of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee, which rejected similar bills last year, is expected to consider the measures. New House rules give subcommittees authority to kill legislation.

Under current law, police can ticket a driver for a seat belt violation only if the motorist is stopped for another infraction. A bill by Del. Brian Moran, D-Alexandria, would allow police to stop a driver for the seat belt violation alone.

The makeup of the House public safety committee has changed with the addition of five freshman delegates, but that alone is unlikely to reverse the panel’s opposition to the seat belt bill. So supporters of the bill will try an economic argument.

According to Rodrigues, the federal government is offering a “one-time signing bonus” to states that pass primary seat belt enforcement laws.

“If we don’t do this, Virginia would be walking away from $17 million,” she said.

Supporters of stoplight cameras will try to sway the committee with data from Virginia Beach, where red-light running at intersections equipped with the technology nearly doubled in the five months after the program ended last June 30.

“It’s a proven, cost-effective technology that reduces red-light-running violations and the associated serious injury crashes,” Virginia Beach Police Lt. Tony F. Zucaro said of the photo red system.

Six northern Virginia localities — Arlington and Fairfax counties, the cities of Fairfax, Alexandria and Falls Church and the town of Vienna — received General Assembly permission to operate photo-red pilot programs in 1995. Virginia Beach joined them in 2004.

The House public safety committee refused to reauthorize the programs last year after some members raised concerns about drivers’ privacy and their right to confront their accuser.

Restricting cell-phone use by teen drivers is another issue legislators have considered before. Last year, the Senate passed a bill prohibiting anyone younger than 18 from driving and chatting on the phone at the same time, but the sponsor withdrew the measure after the House amended it to allow the use of hands-free devices.

The Senate overwhelmingly passed the bill again this session and sent it to the House.

A new issue before legislators is Del. Terry Kilgore’s proposal to ensure jail time for illegal drag racers who cause a death. Kilgore, R-Scott, said he decided Virginia needed a tougher law after a teenager was killed by a racer in Johnson City, Tenn., last fall.

His bill says anyone who kills another while drag racing is guilty of aggravated involuntary manslaughter, punishable by a mandatory minimum of one year in prison, up to a maximum of 10 years. Without the legislation, offenders with no previous record could get only probation, Kilgore said.

Del. Jeion A. Ward, D-Hampton, was dismayed by the demise of her bill to increase the fine for passing a stopped school bus from $250 to $500. A subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee tabled the bill on a voice vote even though nobody spoke in opposition, she said.

“I believe had it gone before the full committee and had a recorded vote, the result would have been different,” Ward said.

Ward, president of the Hampton Federation of Teachers, said she introduced the bill because when she visits schools she often sees motorists ignore the flashing red lights and stop-sign arm on school buses, endangering the lives of children. She said she had hoped increasing the fine would raise public awareness.

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