Setting the record straight on abusive drivers

Politics can be frustrating, particularly when it comes to clarifying incorrect information on controversial topics that have been misrepresented either intentionally of unintentionally. Such is the case with the Abusive Driver Bill that was part of the bipartisan 2007 Transportation Compromise.

Recent press accounts, like letters and editorial opinion recently published in this paper, have suggested that the Abusive Driver law will result in huge fines on drivers who make occasional driver errors. This is utterly false. For the record, there is no such thing as a "$3000 traffic ticket" for failure to give a proper turn signal, driving too fast for conditions, or other relatively "minor" highway offenses. In fact this falsehood is part of a blog-based misinformation campaign to distort the facts.

One false example suggests that a driver caught doing 20 mph over the limit would face a $1000 fine, and after court cost could be out $1500 if not much more. This is dead wrong.

In fairness to those who are simply misinformed, as opposed to fostering falsehoods, the Supreme Court of Virginia may have added to the "$3000 ticket scare" in a document they prepared as a "general explanation" of the bill. That document, says a felony conviction will result in "two additional payments of $1,000 each due to DMV, one within 14 months of conviction and the second within 26 months of conviction." Adding to the confusion, at the end of the document, there is a chart listing a variety of felonies, including failure to give proper signal, driving too fast for conditions and speeding 20 mph or more above speed limit.

What the Supreme Court failed to mention are the actual parameters for a "reckless driving" conviction under the "abuser" bill require more than one condition be met. Specifically, that "Every person convicted of reckless driving under the provisions of this article who, when he committed the offense, (i) was driving without a valid operator's license due to a suspension or revocation for a moving violation and, (ii) as the sole and proximate result of his reckless driving, caused the death of another, is guilty of a Class 6 felony." (§ 46.2-868 of the Virginia Code)

In plain English that means to be assessed the "abuser fee" for reckless speeding, the offender not only must be convicted of doing 20 mph over the 55 speed limit, but also must be driving without a valid operator's license due to a suspension or revocation for a prior moving violation, plus (and this is a key point) the reckless speeding he is charged with must be the sole and proximate result of the death of another person. In other words, you're not speaking here of a driver simply going too fast, but one who is also driving on a suspended license and killed someone in the process. My bet is most folks agree that this kind of driver should be assessed heavily, even those General Assembly members who voted against the Compromise Transportation package in 2007, but supported a stand-alone abuser fee bill in the 2006 Special Session.

So as you can see, simply going too fast alone is not going to get anybody a $3000 ticket. In reality, the "abuser" law will punish "abusive" drivers who are out there killing innocent people as a result of their complete disregard for safety on our highways. In reality, only those with serious criminal road-related convictions or who accumulate a massive amount of demerit points are subject to the fees. Since every driver starts with 0 demerits for abuser fee purposes on July 1, 2007 (and some at -5 after taking a driver safety course), those who obey the laws or have an occasional traffic infraction will pay zero. The abuser fees are targeted at chronic and dangerous drivers. The Kaine Administration estimates that about 2.5% of Virginians will actually have to pay them. Despite that low number, these bad drivers are estimated to be responsible for more than 25% of all congestion on Virginia roadways.

So to set the record straight, the abusive driver fees were part of a larger transportation agreement that passed the General Assembly and was signed by the Governor including, a robust $3 billion bonding package, land-use reform to better empower localities to deal with growth and VDOT reform to make them more efficient. Was this bill perfect? No compromise is. But the time to deal with transportation was long over due. The bottom line is if you are a safe driver with only minor infractions, you have nothing to fear from this law. But real abusers -- those who have a chronic record of dangerous driving or who have taken the lives of others -- will and should pay for their reckless behavior.

Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter, (R-31) represents Prince William and Fauquier Counties in the House of Delegates of the Virginia General Assembly. A retired Army Colonel, he was elected in 2001.

Potomac News Friday, July 13, 2007