Safe roads focus of transportation advocates as crossover approaches

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Transportation advocates are pushing Virginia lawmakers to pass three pieces of legislation they say would dramatically improve safety on roads in the Commonwealth.

“Virginia lawmakers are on the verge of making dramatic progress toward safer roadways. These three changes are long overdue and represent major advancements in the fight to save lives,” said Martha Mitchell Meade, manager public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “AAA urges lawmakers to continue to approve these bills and send them to the governor for his signature. Lives depend on it.”

The bills getting the most attention from advocates would ban the use of handheld electronic devices while driving, prohibit open containers of alcohol in the passenger compartment of vehicles, and allow police officers to pull over and ticket those not wearing seat belts

AAA surveyed Virginia drivers in 2019 and found that nearly two-thirds support expanding Virginia’s law to prohibit handheld devices while driving on any road and not just in work zones as is the current law. An overwhelming 93 percent of those surveyed are concerned about their safety due to others who are distracted by electronic devices, yet new research released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that those concerns are not changing dangerous driving behaviors.

Even though 97 percent of drivers reported that texting/emailing while driving is a serious threat to their safety, 45 percent admit to having read a text or email while driving in the past month, and 35 percent admit to having typed one.

Currently in Virginia only 18 percent report using hands free technology while driving, according to AAA’s poll.

“AAA urges lawmakers to take action this year and not look in the rear view mirror again next year at the treasured lives lost at the hands of distracted drivers,” said Meade.

Stand-alone bills before lawmakers that address this issue include HB874 and SB160.

Likewise, in Virginia, police officers cannot pull over and ticket those not wearing their seat belts unless they first witness the driver breaking another law. If a primary enforcement seat belt law (HB1439HB1414) were enacted in Virginia, more people would buckle up and traffic fatalities would be further reduced.

All states surrounding Virginia have primary laws (Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina), and a total of 34 states have enacted primary enforcement of seat belt laws.

States with a primary enforcement law experience seat belt usage rates 10-12 percent higher than those states with a secondary enforcement law.

The nationwide seat belt use rate in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was 90.7 percent, whereas Virginia’s seat belt use rate has ranged from 79 to 85 percent over past few years.

Research has found that lap/shoulder seat belts, when used, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50 percent.

Lastly, if passed, it would be illegal for anyone to “possess any alcoholic beverage other than in the manufacturer’s unopened original container” in the passenger compartment of motor vehicle on public roads (HB1439 / HB1414).

“It took our country almost 50 years to make impaired driving socially unacceptable, yet some drivers still drive drunk. We must address this issue by removing any temptation from the passenger compartment of the car,” Meade said.

Exceptions to the current proposed law include containers a locked glove compartment or in the trunk of the motor vehicle. Other exemptions apply to allow for specific situations.

“Preventable deaths are heartbreaking. Amending the commonwealth’s laws to avert tragedy after tragedy, police death notification after notification, and scores of senseless serious and permanent injuries is paramount,” Meade said.

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