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Better Watch Out: New Laws Begin Thursday

Effective July 1, two new traffic safety laws in Virginia will help to ensure that 16 and 17-year-old passengers are buckled up and will protect tow truck drivers and highway workers, according to Martha M. Meade, AAA Mid-Atlantic manager for public and government affairs. The first change impacting motorist safety will require 16 and 17-year-old passengers to wear seat belts in the back seat of a vehicle and subject them to primary enforcement for lack of belt use in any passenger seat, Meade said.  

SB 219, sponsored by Senator Janet Howell, accomplished this change. “A high school teacher from Herndon, Barbara Glakas, suggested the bill,” Howell said. “During her career, she had known several students who died or were seriously injured because they were not wearing a seat belt in the back seat.  It was always a needless tragedy.

“Teens we talked to were prepared to wear seat belts in the back seat ‘if it was the law’ but not otherwise,” the senator said.  “Fortunately, the General Assembly saw the wisdom of requiring those under 18 to wear their seatbelt, and hopefully, we will avoid many tragedies.”

During the 2010 session, Virginia lawmakers voted to expand the Commonwealth’s “Move Over” law to include protection for tow truck drivers and highway workers who display amber colored flashing lights when working outside their vehicles, Meade said. The current law applies only to motorists approaching emergency vehicles displaying red or blue flashing lights, which are generally displayed by police, fire and rescue. 

In addition to protecting vehicles displaying red or blue lights, Virginia’s new law also mandates that motorists, approaching a tow truck or highway maintenance vehicle displaying amber lights, change lanes away from the flashing lights, if possible to do so safely, and/or proceed with caution given the prevailing highway conditions, Meade said. 

When the new law goes into effect on July 1, Virginia will join 38 other states that already recognize the dangers faced by these individuals and the need to give them added protection while they work.  The offense is punishable as a traffic infraction, Meade said.

Delegate Glenn Oder sponsored House Bill 1159, which enacts the change. “The Move Over Law in Virginia has proven to be an effective tool in protecting our police and first responders during traffic incidents,” said Oder. 

“The time has come to recognize that our tow truck drivers and Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) workers face the same danger as they fulfill their duties,” he said. “I am hopeful that this new law will prevent further tragedies to the people who serve in this industry.”

The unfortunate and preventable death of Andy Starmer, a tow truck driver who was struck and killed on the shoulder of Interstate 64 in Newport News in August of 2009, highlighted the need for such a law and helped lawmakers see the need for the change, Meade said.

Starmer did everything right on the night of Aug. 9 when he arrived to assist a stranded motorist — he pulled onto the right shoulder, was wearing reflective clothing and had his truck’s amber lights flashing — and yet he was struck and killed by another vehicle on the highway.

VDOT workers are afforded the protection as well. “Highway work zones are one of the most dangerous places for both drivers and our workers,” said Acting VDOT Commissioner Greg Whirley. “Moving over to allow more distance between your vehicle and the highway workers will result in greater safety for everyone.”

The Virginia State Police also support the change. “This is more than just a courtesy — this law is intended to save lives,” said Colonel W. Steven Flaherty, Virginia State Police superintendent. “Drivers must remember there are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, sisters and brothers working the road every day to help motorists.

“Whether the job is removing a disabled vehicle, repairing our roads, or stopping a reckless driver — all of us need the room to do our work safely, so, we can return home to our families at the end of the day,” Flaherty said.

Primary enforcement allows a police officer to pull and ticket motorists for failure to comply with the law, Meade said. A secondary enforcement law only allows police to ticket motorists for the infraction if they first witness another offense for which they may stop the motorist. Only then would they be permitted to ticket for non-compliance of, for example, the seat belt law.