Aggressive drivers, beware: Virginia is coming after you. Both the House and Senate passed bills holding drivers accountable for their road behavior and, if either is signed by the governor, it will become law July 1.
"What the bill does is offer an option between a moving violation and reckless driving," said Del. James K. "Jay" O'Brien (R-40th), patron of House Bill 1342, dealing with this offense. "That way, the [police] officer on the scene can say, 'This wasn't just speeding, but speeding with an intent to harass, obstruct or injure.'"
Both he and Sen. William C. Mims (R-33rd) sponsored virtually identical bills, and both passed with strong majorities. O'Brien's passed by a vote of 81-13. Not only does it establish an actual charge of "aggressive driving," but it sets particular penalties for offenders.
"It's a higher standard of moving violation," explained O'Brien. "Most add three points to the driving record; this adds four points, unless there's an intent to injure. Then it would be six points."
Not only that, but an aggressive-driving conviction would be punishable as a Class 2 misdemeanor, with offenders facing six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Convictions for aggressive driving with the intent to injure another person would be Class 1 misdemeanors, carrying penalties of as much as a year in jail and/or a $2,500 fine.
IN ADDITION, the court could order aggressive drivers to take a course in aggressive-driving prevention or anger management. Six other states have placed laws on their books, in recent years, targeting aggressive drivers, but Virginia is the only one that's included education to try to change such behavior.
According to the bill, a person is guilty of aggressive driving if he or she violates one of more of the following: Drives on the right side of highways (safety lane), fails to observe lanes marked for traffic, follows too closely, fails to stop or yield right-of-way when required, evades traffic-control devices, passes improperly, weaves between lanes and is a hazard to another person or commits one of these offenses with the intent to "harass, intimidate, injure or obstruct" another person.
The bill has two parts, said O'Brien, "the legal use of this law to punish offenders and the stigma that I hope will be associated with reckless or aggressive driving — such as has happened with DUIs over the years — that it hurts the offenders more than it used to. Using your car as a weapon on the road should cause some stigma and punishment."
He said aggressive driving is scoring high in polls asking about citizens' concerns, and it's time something was done about it. "We have so many people who are model citizens, but have a Jekyll and Hyde personality behind the wheel," said O'Brien. "When they're late for an appointment, they're in their cars, honking their horns — and they're just too angry for the road."
In fact, he, Mims and Del. Kenny Melvin from Hampton Roads — none of whom had discussed it beforehand — all brought aggressive-driving bills with them to the General Assembly. Fueling O'Brien's desire were some road-rage incidents here, last fall.
"One was a fatality on the Beltway where the guy went ballistic and someone was killed," he said. "I wanted to find out what was on the books in Virginia about this, and I was surprised to find there wasn't anything. Bill Mims and I felt there should be something to address this specifically."
O'BRIEN ALSO NOTED that legislators in the more rural areas of the state couldn't understand why he and Mims wanted it, because they don't see this behavior on a daily basis, as do those in urban areas. And that's why the penalty would be less than that for reckless driving.
O'Brien didn't believe he could get the bill passed at a higher penalty. "You have to get what you can get, and it's a good first step for this year," he said. "I think it's a good bill. We believe we came out with a desirable and moderate approach to what is a serious problem."
He's also optimistic that Gov. Warner will sign it into law. "If more needs to be done in the future, it will be," he said. "But this will let people know that their state won't tolerate aggressive driving or road rage. It's simply unacceptable behavior, and we have to set the bar."