In addition to all the important bills the VTLA tracked this session, there were a few that passed, a couple that were expected to but didn’t, and one that took a circuitous route that caught our eye. Here’s a brief rundown.
Hands-Free Driving: While both chambers passed bills to toughen Virginia’s hands-free driving law, the effort ultimately failed after language was added by a conference report that divided legislators. The added language, “in his hand” and “while physically manipulating the device to view, read, or enter data” was defended by those who said it would allow for uses such as using GPS while a device sat somewhere like a cup holder. But the added language caused concern by some that the effect of the law would be watered down to the point of pointlessness when compared to current law. Concerns were also raised about whether the changes made enforcement too subjective. The new language died in the House of Delegates with both bi-partisan support and rejection of the changes. Governor Northam attempted to revive the issue during the “veto” session by adding it as an amendment to a separate bill banning the use of hand held devices in work zones. That effort was blocked by House Speaker Kirk Cox who said the amendments were not relevant enough to proceed.
Suspended License: A bill, passed by the Senate 36-4 with bi-partisan support, would have done away with the requirement to suspend the driver’s license of persons who could not immediately pay court fees, or owed costs or fees to other jurisdictions. However, the measure failed to make it out of the House Courts of Justice subcommittee in a 4-3 vote along party lines. Critics of the measure voiced concern about the financial impact of removing funding provided to trauma centers and the DMV through license reinstatement fees. Proponents pointed to the tricky balance navigated by those who lose their license for financial reasons, saying the current system leads to a cycle of financial burden and an increase in drivers operating without a valid license. This practice was halted by a temporary injunction issued by Judge Moon in December of 2018. A version of the bill was ultimately passed as a budget amendment by the General Assembly when they reconvened in April. The amendment reinstates driving privileges for more than 627,000 Virginians and will become law July 1, but since it is part of the budget, additional bills will be needed to extend beyond a single year.
Move Over: During the regular and “veto” sessions, lawmakers addressed Virginia’s move over law. The penalty for failure to move over and create a buffer lane (or proceed with caution if it is unsafe or unreasonable to do so) will increase to reckless driving for a first offense involving police, EMS, or fire department vehicles. Violations involving other vehicles such as roadside assistance and tow trucks will remain a lesser traffic infraction. This law applies to roadways that are at least four lanes and situations involving stationary vehicles displaying flashing, blinking, or alternating blue, red, or amber lights.
Speed Cameras: Hand held speed cameras will now be allowed to be used at highway work zones that have an officer with vehicle lights activated. Tickets will be sent via mail to those traveling 12 or more mph above the posted speed limit. Not super juicy, but it is the first time Virginia will employ speed cameras.
Coal Ash Recycling: Two bills requiring Dominion Energy to address coal ash stored at various power stations passed this session. They would create the mandate that the waste be moved to lined and permitted landfills or recycled (with a requirement that ¼ be recycled). Proponents cited the environmental harm done by storing coal ash in the current manner. And while we won’t debate that, a side issue peeked our interest. One of the most common ways to recycle coal ash is for use in wallboard. In fact, half of all American made drywall is made from recycled coal ash. And while there’s debate but no conclusive evidence yet that says that’s a problem, we couldn’t help getting a little déjà vu.