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Va. Senate hopes to ease reckless driving threat on some interstates

Workers install a sign south of Richmond warning drivers of Virginia's reckless driving penalties in this 2016 file photo. The reckless driving charge kicks in even if the posted speed limit is 70 mph. For the third year in a row, the Virginia Senate passed a bill that would apply the reckless driving charge to all drivers clocked going faster than 85 mph, instead of the existing 80 mph limit. (Courtesy Virginia Department of Transportation)

WASHINGTON — Drivers caught traveling 11 mph faster than the speed limit on parts of Interstate 95, among other Virginia highways, would no longer come with the threat of jail time under a bill passed by the state Senate Tuesday.

Under current law, any speeding violation over 80 mph automatically becomes a reckless driving charge, a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine, even if the posted speed limit is 70 mph.

The change, proposed again by Sen. David Suetterlein of the Roanoke area, would raise the automatic reckless driving threshold to 85 mph. It would remain reckless driving to travel 20 mph or more over any speed limit that is lower than 70 mph.

Although the Senate has supported similar bills since the legislature approved the 70 mph speed limits in 2010, such measures have died in the House.

The Senate voted 23-16 in favor of the bill in a vote that did not track along party lines.

“I hope the House now sees the wisdom of it,” Suetterlein said.

Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, whose district includes portions of Interstate 81, argued that the reckless driving penalties keep many people from driving faster than 80 mph, which keeps highways safer.

“When there’s a problem on Interstate 81, somebody dies a fiery death,” Obenshain said. “It is not a panacea, but it saves lives.”

Fairfax Sen. Scott Surovell, a lawyer who has represented drivers facing reckless driving charges, said the penalties that would remain — fines and points on a driver’s license — could still serve as a deterrent.

“I don’t believe that the fact that this is reckless driving versus speeding deters anybody from driving 80 versus 85,” Surovell said. “The people that come to me that are charged with reckless driving often have no clue they can go to jail for driving 81 mph on a road in Virginia. In most other states, this is not the kind of thing you can go to jail for.”

Sen. Dick Black, R-Loudoun County, called the threat of jail time for traveling 11 mph over a speed limit “fundamentally unfair.”


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