WASHINGTON — Getting caught going 11 miles an hour faster than the speed limit on some Virginia highways comes with the threat of a year in jail, but a bill approved by the state senate this week would change that.
The bill, which passed 26-14, would change the law so a reckless driving charge automatically applies to all drivers clocked going faster than 85 mph on any Virginia road, instead of the existing 80 mph limit.
The bill maintains the existing law that any driver going 20 miles per hour or more over the speed limit is also guilty of reckless driving.
Most Republicans voted for the bill and most Democrats voted against it, however Republican Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (James City County) joined the group to oppose the bill, sponsored by Republican Dave Suetterlein of Roanoke County.
“I think it’s absurd that 11 miles [per hour] over the speed limit under the current code puts you … a threat of a year in jail,” he says.
Democratic Caucus Chair Don McEachin (Richmond), who is a personal injury lawyer, argued that it is dangerous to drive over 80 mph, and that the law should continue to reflect that.
“Whether law enforcement likes it or not, whether judges like it or not, that is reckless driving. You are going faster than you could possibly go and be able to control your vehicle,” he said.
“This is a bad idea. We don’t need to allow the people who have traveled 85 miles per hour to be able to elude a ticket or get away with a ticket that would suggest something less than reckless.”
McEachin said he knows that people do go 85 mph on Virginia highways, because “sadly … someone related to me by blood has done that, and I’ve gotten her out of, unfortunately, two tickets.”
Sen. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson, says changing the law would be reasonable, since the threshold has not been raised since 70 mph speed limits were introduced in 2010.
“With that change in the speed limit came an opportunity for people who have security clearances, people who have reasons that a class-I misdemeanor would disrupt their job opportunities and so forth, to be charged if they were just 11 miles per hour over the speed limit,” he said.
“It basically is bringing into practice what a lot of courts are doing now … and allowing someone not to be caught in that trap of being charged with a class I misdemeanor, but yet being fined with a normal traffic infraction.”
Sen. Tom Garrett, R-Buckingham, who is a lawyer representing drivers accused of traffic violations, says a speeding ticket at 80 mph in at 70 mph zone costs about $150.
“You hit 81, you retain Tom Garrett, and I charge you $1,500, we get it knocked down to 80, and you’re at $1,650,” he says.
“State of the art technology right now: perception distance plus brake reaction distance at 80 miles per hour — 481 feet. That’s a good car, with good reflexes, and good conditions … 81 [miles per hour], you’re up another seven feet, but the difference in the punishment is conceivably one year in jail and a $2,500 fine, versus $150 … come on now. That one mile an hour, that should be something we can go to jail for 12 months over?” he asked his colleagues.
Garrett joked that if he were voting by his wallet, he should recuse himself from a vote on the bill because about one-third of his income comes from reckless driving cases.
He says that while some judges are willing to be understanding of speeding drivers, others ask troopers who issue simple speeding tickets to drivers going 81 mph why the infraction was not written up as the more serious reckless driving.
McEachin says the General Assembly or localities can deal with judges and law enforcement officers who are not enforcing the law.
“They can fix that, but we need to continue this policy statement that driving [more than] 80 miles per hour is reckless, regardless of what the basic speed limit is … That is reckless. It ought to be reckless, and we have no business lowering our standards,” he said.
The House version of the bill, introduced by Del. Mark Sickles, D-Franconia, was tabled by a subcommittee of the Committee for Courts of Justice.
The Senate bill has been referred to the Transportation Committee, so its fate could be different.