Safety advocates offer mixed reviews for road rules throughout DC region

Virginia, Maryland and D.C. all lack recommended safety measures, and road safety advocates say its affecting new drivers and young passengers.

The 2021 Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws from the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety rates all 50 states and D.C. on the passage of 16 traffic safety laws.

“At a time when our emergency rooms and our hospital rooms in the DMV are overly burdened because of the pandemic, it is critically important for elected officials to take our roadmap report and see what they can advance to improve roadway safety,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

All three localities lack the strongest possible rules for graduated driver licensing. Virginia and D.C. lack booster seat laws and Maryland does not require rear facing car seats for children up to two years old.

“Unfortunately Virginia is lacking 10 of the 16 optimal laws that we recommend,” Chase said.

Virginia’s seat belt law only covers adults, age 18 and over, in the front seat and it is secondary enforcement. The state does not have a rear seat belt law. Its open container law only bans the driver from consuming alcohol but not passengers.

A new 2021 Virginia law prohibits the use of hand held cell phones while driving, but Chase notes the new law doesn’t address texting.

“If you have your phone on a dash mounted device and you tap it, you’re not holding it. So, you can text if you’re not holding the phone,” she said. “We’re hopeful that people know that they should not be doing this, because it is a handheld ban — but it is a loophole in the new law.”

The report assigns each state a color based on the number of recommended safety laws it’s enacted.

Virginia is among 12 states rated red which is defined as being dangerously behind in adoption of recommended optimal laws.

Maryland is among 30 states rated as yellow defined as it needing improvement because of gaps in recommended optimal laws.

D.C. is among eight states earning a green ranking for being “significantly advanced” toward adopting all of the recommended optimal laws.

“Every death on the road is preventable by the passage of the optimal laws we recommend in our roadmap report” and through the use of advanced technologies, Chase said.

The group has expectations for improved safety measures from car manufactures and is appealing to the upcoming 117th Congress and incoming Biden-Harris Administration to prioritize action to set minimum safety standards.

“Right now, any manufacturer can put a new technology in a car, but there are no standards for them,” Chase said.

Advocates want the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue a final rule of minimum performance standards for advanced technologies such as lane departure warning and blind spot detection.

“So when people go in the show room to buy a new car they know that when they buy a car with automatic emergency braking it meets a minimum level. It’s going to brake when the consumer expects it to,” Chase said.

The new technology is not available in all vehicles or may come as standard equipment only in higher end cars.

“If these improved technologies were in all new cars – thousands of lives would be saved every year,” Chase said.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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