The General Assembly convenes today in Richmond to take up Gov. Ralph Northam’s vetoes of and amendments to legislation. Veto sessions are usually low-drama affairs, but this year there are two bills the governor has amended that are of huge importance to safety on Virginia’s highways: Interstate 81 safety initiatives and outlawing the use of any handheld smartphone while operating a vehicle.
On both these matters, legislators dropped the ball during the regular Assembly session. With his amendments, Gov. Northam has given the Assembly a chance to redeem itself, and we hope legislators avail themselves of that opportunity.
» Interstate 81. The highway is the economic lifeline of western Virginia, stretching 325 miles from Winchester to Bristol. Completed more than 45 years ago, the interstate has seen traffic, both commercial and private, grow by leaps and bounds, but only incremental safety and design improvements.
The volume of truck traffic on I-81 is huge: According to the Virginia Department of Transportation, I-81 handles 40 percent of the state’s truck traffic — on a highway that is mostly two lanes in each direction. Northam initially proposed tolling I-81 to pay for safety upgrades estimated to cost more than $2 billion.
Lobbyists for the national trucking industry, loathe to pay anywhere near the cost to maintain the interstate that they are primary beneficiaries of, killed the tolling proposal and a subsequent proposal to pay for the work through higher fuel taxes. All that passed the Assembly was a bill establishing yet another commission to study I-81 safety issues.
Northam has amended that bill to raise fuel taxes along the I-81 corridor with the monies dedicated to I-81 safety work; in addition, he proposes establishing similar dedicated revenue streams for I-64 and I-95. We hope legislators will accept the governor’s amendments and move this vital project forward.
» Distracted driving and cellphones. In 2017, 843 people died in traffic accidents on Virginia’s highways, and more than 200 of those deaths were linked to distracted driving. One of the main causes of distracted driving is use of a cellphone while driving.
By an overwhelming margin, the Senate passed legislation that would have made the use of a handheld device while driving a primary offense — meaning a police officer would not have to observe another act such as speeding to pull over a driver. Meanwhile, the House of Delegates OK’d different wording, sending it to a conference committee to iron out the differences. The compromise bill again sailed through the Senate but died in the House, mainly on concerns police could use the law as an excuse to pull drivers for little or no reason.
Meanwhile, the Assembly did pass a bill outlawing use of a handheld device while driving through a highway construction zone, giving a police officer the authority to pull the driver if he observed such use. Gov. Northam has amended this bill to include all of the state’s highways, resurrecting the distracted driving bill that died in the Assembly’s waning days.
The problem is House Speaker Kirk Cox appears set to rule the amendment is not “germane” to the legislation being amended, meaning it expands the scope of the original bill far beyond its intent. If Cox does rule this way today, Northam’s amendment won’t even be called up.
Legislators can vote to override the speaker’s decision, and we hope they do. This is a problem that has taken too many lives over years.