Critics of Va. Abusive-Driver Fees Point to Increase in Traffic Deaths

By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 30, 2007

When controversy erupted over Virginia's new abusive-driver fees this summer, proponents came together to defend the penalties, saying they would raise crucial transportation dollars while deterring bad driving and improving road safety.

But yesterday, the state reached a grim milestone: For the first time in 17 years, it surpassed 1,000 traffic fatalities in a year.

Since the fees, which target drivers convicted of such serious offenses as reckless driving and driving under the influence, took effect July 1, 519 people have died on Virginia roads, 10 more than in the second half of last year, state figures show. The 2006 total was 961 traffic deaths.

Both backers and opponents of the fees cautioned that it might be too early to draw conclusions on the effect they have had on road safety, but some said the 1,000th road death is a stark reminder that in this crucial category, at least so far, results are lackluster.

"I'm not a traffic expert," said incoming state Sen. J. Chapman "Chap" Petersen (D-Fairfax), who favors repealing the fees and won office in November, in part, on a campaign that derided them. But "the fact that our highway fatalities have not decreased -- if anything, they're higher -- I think this just underscores the fact that this legislation did not make our highways more safe, which, as I recall, was one of the primary reasons . . . articulated for the abuser fees."

The 1,000th death follows a critical report about the fees released this month by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. Among other things, the report showed that since the fees were enacted, there has been an increase in arrests for driving under the influence over the same period last year. It also showed an 11 percent decline in arrests for reckless driving but indicated that some police officers might be choosing not to write tickets for violations that carry the fees.

House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who favors amending the fees to focus on severely reckless and drunk drivers, said that in his experience, it can take up to 18 months for a new law to demonstrate deterrent effects.

"Even with all the press the abuser fees have gotten, it takes time for people to really feel and realize" what the new penalties are, Griffith said.

Gordon Hickey, a spokesman for Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), said it's too early to draw definitive conclusions on the effects of the fees. "It's only six months of data," he said. "It's worthwhile data, but it's not definitive."

Kaine strongly defended the fees this summer but has since said they "should at least be changed, maybe eliminated."

As the number of deaths increased this year, the state transportation and motor vehicle departments and the Virginia State Police joined to launch the Highway Safety Challenge in October, a program to reduce road deaths through enforcement, education and engineering.

But the deaths continued, surpassing last year's total early this month.

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