Of the 3,332 of bills, resolutions and other pieces of legislation introduced for consideration by legislators in the 2019 session of the General Assembly, three common-sense proposals related to highway safety stand out to us:
» Funding for construction of safety improvements on Interstate 81 from the use of tolls to pay for the $3.3 billion in costs;
» Restricting the use a smartphone while operating a motor vehicle and
» Increased enforcement of work-zone speed limits through the use of cameras.
Sadly — and cynics would say predictably — legislators only looked positively on the use of cameras to enforce work zone speed limits and kicked the proverbial can down the road on the other two.
» Interstate 81. The 325-mile-long path of I-81 in western Virginia is one of the most heavily trafficked roadways in the commonwealth. Most of the highway, designed to standards of the late 1950s and ’60s, is four lanes — two in each direction. It carries 42 percent of statewide truck traffic volume, and in some stretches, trucks comprise up to 30 percent of the total traffic volume. In 2017, the Virginia Department of Transportation estimated I-81 handled 1.2 billion truck “Vehicle Miles Traveled,” 42 percent of the Virginia total. Crashes have steadily increased in the last five years, and miles-long backups are common. And 48 miles of the interstate has grades greater than 3 percent.
Gov. Ralph Northam proposed a far-reaching package of legislation to address much-needed safety improvements for I-81, totaling more than $3.3 billion. Revenue from five automated tolling islands would create a dedicated funding stream for the work. The trucking industry went berserk over possible tolls, as its lobbyists claimed trucks were unfairly targeted. A reminder: I-81 carries 42 percent of all truck traffic in the state.
The outcome? Tolls were killed, but an I-81 commission was created to “study” the problem. Pathetic, just pathetic.
» Cellphone use while driving. Virginia State Police officials say distracted driving is an “epidemic” in the state, and the statistics prove them out. In 2017, 208 of the 843 traffic deaths in Virginia were attributed to distracted driving, and the primary cause of distracted driving is use of a smartphone while operating a motor vehicle.
House Bill 1181 would have confronted the problem, making it a primary offense to use a handheld device for any purpose while driving. Because the Senate and the House of Delegates passed different versions of the bill, a conference committee tried to craft a compromise that also met objections of African-American lawmakers who feared it would be used to target minority drivers.
The result was a legal mess that pleased no one, leaving Virginia with no law against handheld use of a smartphone while driving. And in 2019, more people will die on our highways because of that.
» Work-zone speed cameras. The first use of speed cameras in the state will be police to enforce reduced speed limits in highway work zones, statistically some of the most deadly stretches of roadways. (Twelve people were killed by work-zone speeders in 2017, according to VDOT.)
A trooper could use a speed camera only when his vehicle’s flashing lights are on and only if warning signs have been erected. The technology has long been used in Maryland and the District of Columbia, but common sense has been in short supply in Virginia. Until now.
Would that common sense and political courage had prevailed on Items 1 and 2. Perhaps next year.