By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 26, 2007
When Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and House Speaker William J. Howell were mulling over what sort of motorists to target with the state's new abusive-driver fees, they could have drawn on experience: their own run-ins with the law.
In 1997 and 2001, Kaine (D) was ticketed for going 72 and 73 mph in 55 mph zones, court records show. Another three and two miles per hour would have brought charges of reckless driving for going 20 over the speed limit, an offense that now comes with a mandatory $1,050 fee in addition to judge-imposed penalties.
The speaker's foot appears to have a bit more lead in it. In 2002, Howell (R-Stafford) was ticketed for reckless driving, charged with going 75 mph on a Caroline County road, although the charge was reduced to simple speeding -- 74 in a 55 mph zone -- in court, he confirmed.
Kaine and Howell acknowledged speeding but said the offenses do not make them abusive drivers.
Within the past year, House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) and House Republican Caucus chairman Terry G. Kilgore (Scott) received speeding tickets in Rockbridge County for driving 80 in a 65 mph zone -- one mile per hour short of a reckless-driving charge, had they exceeded 80mph. Their records show each has an additional speeding violation.
A review of the driving histories of the state's leading lawmakers and those from Northern Virginia shows that they are just as susceptible, if not more so, to the kind of behind-the-wheel behavior that they aimed to curb with the new fees, which have been widely derided since they took effect July 1.
Their driving records were gathered from local courts and personal interviews and may not represent lawmakers' entire driving records.
The fees, which range from $750 to $3,000, were passed by the General Assembly in the spring as part of a package aimed at funding scores of transportation projects. Backers have also said the fees would improve highway safety by cracking down on the state's worst drivers -- those guilty of severe traffic offenses including drunken driving, reckless driving and driving on a suspended license.
But if some of the state's leading lawmakers -- as well as several backbenchers -- qualify, just who are the so-called abusive drivers?
"Just because you get one [ticket for going] 20 miles over, you may not be an abusive driver," Kilgore said. "We probably need to look at that."
Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said in a statement that the governor was not an abusive driver. "Like many Virginians, the Governor has been cited for speeding -- twice in the past ten years. The Governor did not contest the tickets, and paid the fines. Like most typical traffic infractions, neither of these speeding violations would fall under the abusive driving statute."
At a news conference last week, Howell and other Republican leaders said that state police issued 23 percent fewer reckless driving violations and 11 percent fewer speeding tickets in July than in July 2006 -- saying this is evidence that the fees are making motorists slow down. At the same time, Republicans called for changes to the legislation that would exempt some offenses -- including certain types of reckless driving -- from the hefty fees.
Those leading the charge to repeal the penalties completely -- including Bryan Ault, a software tester from Alexandria, whose online petition against the fees has drawn more than 174,000 signatures -- said the legislation is too far-reaching.
"Pregnant women rushing to the hospital, Navy veterans -- the people that are getting these fees are not the most dangerous drivers," Ault said, referring to individuals featured in recent news accounts, some of whom had been found guilty of reckless driving. Ault said he has gotten speeding tickets in New York and New Jersey in the past six years but none in Virginia.
Several Northern Virginia lawmakers have received fee-worthy or close to fee-worthy tickets in past years.
Del. Vivian E. Watts (D-Fairfax) was convicted of reckless driving in 1998 for going 20 mph over the limit. Del. Adam P. Ebbin (D-Alexandria) paid a fine for driving 77 in a 55 mph zone in 2000, although he was charged only with speeding. Ebbin was charged with reckless driving in 2003, but that case was dropped by the prosecution, according to court records.
Del. Thomas Davis Rust (R-Fairfax), who proposed the fees in 2005, was caught speeding in 1996, going 70 in a 55 mph zone. Del. Albert C. Eisenberg (D-Arlington) got a ticket for doing 73 in a 55 mph zone in 2000, and Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester) was stopped for going 71 in a 55 mph zone in 1994. In 1990, Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) received a ticket for driving 70 to 74 mph where the speed limit was 55. Del. Mark D. Sickles (D-Fairfax) was ticketed for going 50 to 54 in a 35 mph zone in 1992.
In April, all voted for the final version of the transportation bill that included the fees, although several have articulated varying positions on the fees themselves. The lawmakers confirmed the offenses, many saying that they simply weren't "paying attention" or that they had "no excuse" for their citations.
Del. Dave W. Marsden (D-Fairfax), nabbed going 50 to 54 mph in a 35 mph zone in 1994, said: "We're the ones that voted on this stuff. Our stuff should be on the record."
A lawmaker who voted against the transportation bill, Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), was convicted of speeding in 1997 for going 60 mph in a 45 mph zone, records show. Another who opposed the legislation, Jeff M. Frederick (R-Prince William), did not return telephone messages to discuss his driving record.
Although years removed, several lawmakers remembered their incidents vividly.
Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said of his 2001 reckless-driving charge: "It was late in the morning. . . . I was on my way to Newport News shipyard, and there was nobody on that damn highway except me and that state trooper."
The charge was lowered to speeding, and Saslaw said he attended traffic school afterward. "I never at any time said I was a state senator, never tried to get out of anything. . . . I just knew I'd screwed up. I hit the brake and pulled over as fast as I could." Saslaw voted against the fees bill.
Nonetheless, Ault said he thinks the fees are unfair partly because lawmakers might receive special treatment in court, given their stature in the commonwealth.
"Legislators have connections within the court system -- they have legal connections, they have name recognition," Ault said. "Just because these legislators can get their tickets reduced doesn't mean the average Virginia citizen can."
Ault also said he thinks reckless driving is "defined way too broadly" in Virginia, a concern lawmakers such as Saslaw seem to share.
"I've seen people coming by me where I'm maybe doing 50, and I know damn full well they're going faster than 65," he said. "Is it reckless? By our definition it is, but realistically? Maybe. I don't know . . . but it's the law."
Michael Curry, one of the first Virginians hit with the fees for a reckless driving ticket he received July 2 while coming home late from work in Baltimore, said he was not surprised to hear of the lawmakers' offenses.
"You can't target the worst drivers if everybody once in a while speeds," said Curry, 21, of Gainesville, who paid the first $350 of his $1,050 fee on Aug. 7 after being found guilty of going 82 in a 55 mph zone. He is appealing the verdict.