Opinion: Commentary: Targeting Deaths in Vehicle Crashes

Opinion: Commentary: Targeting Deaths in Vehicle Crashes

In about 30 days, the 2019 legislative session will begin in Richmond for the 400th year. I feel honored every day to be your representative in the oldest legislative body in America. The first thing to remember about our legislature is that in odd-numbered years house members are only allowed to introduce 15 bills. I have over 30 bill drafts that I will have to cut down to 15. Unfortunately, this means there will be good legislation left on the cutting room floor. However, as we head towards the 400th session, I want to spend the next few weeks updating you on the legislation I plan on introducing next year. Today, I will be discussing two of my bills that I will introduce every year until they pass regarding safety restraints in vehicles.

The first piece of legislation will require every occupant of the front seat and back seat of a vehicle to wear a seatbelt. For the front seat, it will be a primary offense for those that are not wearing a seatbelt and for the backseat it will be a secondary offense with both carrying a $25 fine. The bill was inspired by former West Potomac high school student Jonathan Tucker, who suggested the legislation as his 2016 Amundson Institute Scholar project. Under current Virginia law, an unbuckled front seat belt is a secondary offense while there is no law requiring a seat belt in the backseat of a vehicle if you are over 18. This makes Virginia one of only 10 states with secondary seat belt enforcement laws with backseat exemptions for anyone over 18. The purpose of this measure is very simple, seatbelts are the single most cost effective traffic safety device in the event of an accident. Seat belts hold drivers and passengers in place, keeping them from being thrown forward into the steering wheel, windshield or being ejected from the vehicle. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention seat belts reduce serious crash related injuries and deaths by 50 percent. Furthermore, more than half of adults aged 20-44 that died in car accidents in 2016 were not wearing a seatbelt. We see this problem acutely in Virginia where 16 percent of drivers still do not use their seat belts. Last year alone 308 unbelted motorists died in crashes on Virginia roadways accounting for 52 percent of all crash fatalities. These deaths are easily preventable and it is long past time to enact this life-saving legislation.

The second piece of legislation will require seat belts to be installed in new school buses and in all school buses in the Commonwealth by July 1, 2037. Currently, six states have laws requiring seat belts for large school buses. Many private schools in Virginia already have seatbelts on their school buses. However, the large majority of counties in the Commonwealth do not require seat belts on their school buses, with one exception being Henrico county which added the requirement in 2017. We can not let the school a child attends determine whether they have the necessary safety precautions or not. According to the National Highway Traffic Administration there were 54 fatalities of school age children between 2006-2015. Having seat belts or restraints in these buses statistically could have saved the lives of 27 young children. These statistics don’t include the numerous injuries that occur during serious accidents as well. Recently, we saw the tragic school bus accident in Arkansas that killed one child but also left 45 injured. It is unacceptable that our public schools are not providing our children with this easy and vital safety precaution. We have a solemn responsibility to protect our youth and right now, we are failing that obligation here in Virginia.

Next year, I am hopeful we will pass both pieces of legislation. Governor Northam recently announced the Toward Zero Deaths initiative. The aim of the program is to drastically reduce fatalities in vehicle crashes. Over 40,000 people die annually in the U.S from vehicle crashes. These two pieces of legislation fit perfectly within the mission of this program and would drastically reduce Virginia’s contribution to that tragic total.