Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) yesterday proposed a highway safety program that would strengthen Virginia's penalties for drunken driving and toughen police enforcement against speeders and motorists who fail to use safety belts.
The governor's endorsement of a tougher seat belt law boosted the hopes of advocates who repeatedly have failed to win approval from a General Assembly that has rejected such a change as an unnecessary intrusion by government.
Warner said he wants Virginia to allow police to stop and ticket motorists who fail to use their front-seat belts. Virginia law allows police to cite drivers and front-seat passengers for not wearing safety restraints only when the motorists are stopped for other traffic violations.
Addressing nearly 200 law enforcement officials from across the Washington region, Warner also announced plans to impose minimum fines for drivers convicted of drunken driving offenses, make it easier for courts to revoke licenses of drivers under 21 who drive while intoxicated, and create transportation safety corridors within which fines for traffic violations could be doubled.
"We need to move forward on some of our public safety and transportation initiatives," Warner told the group, gathered at a Tysons Corner restaurant for an award ceremony sponsored by the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, which supports transportation and anti-drunken driving initiatives.
"Virginia is below the national rates in seat belt usage," and the changes would help save money in health care costs and save lives, the governor said.
Warner's proposal would bring Virginia closer to Maryland, 17 other states and the District, all of which allow police officers to stop and ticket motorists who do not wear seat belts.
"Any incentive that can force a driver's hand into complying with the law, I think, is good," said Loudoun County Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson, who attended the session.
National groups that have pushed states to adopt similar seat belt regulations said Warner's legislation is a major step for a Virginia governor, but they acknowledged that it will be a tough fight to cobble together votes when the General Assembly convenes Jan. 8.
Virginia lawmakers have traditionally been hostile to such measures, including limits on possession of open containers of alcohol in cars.
"We're going to have to switch some votes," said David Kelly, a public policy liaison for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Virginia. "But we feel that this year we have the best shot, especially if we can get it in the right committee."
Virginia's seat belt usage rate is 70 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 5 points below the national average. If 85 percent of Virginia motorists wore seat belts, the administration estimated, the state might prevent 123 deaths and 2,700 injuries and save $187 million in medical costs each year.
The National Conference of State Legislatures found that such laws can increase driver seat belt usage by 10 percent.
Warner's other initiatives, including his plan for minimum fines for first-time drunk drivers, mirror efforts across the country.
"You'll find that these kinds of initiatives really work," state Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) said of Warner's seat belt proposal and other ideas.
Warner's plan, however, likely will face stiff opposition when the General Assembly meets, particularly in the House of Delegates, which has nixed several attempts in the last decade to tighten the law.
Much of the opposition has come from downstate legislators who say that such laws encroach on personal liberties. In several cases, the powerful Militia and Police Committee has killed the bills before they reached the House floor.
"My concern is, do we really need nanny government?" asked House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem), who sits on the militia and police panel and has opposed several attempts to toughen seat belt and open container laws.
While saying that he supports the use of seat belts, Griffith said police officers should not have the right to stop motorists to check if they were buckled up.
He said he supports several of the governor's other proposals, especially increasing fines in transportation corridors such as Interstate 81.
"I find it way too intrusive," Griffin said of the seat belt proposal. "The bottom line is that I plan to fight it and hope others do too."
Incoming House speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) said he has not seen Warner's seat belt proposal, but he has not favored such efforts in the past.
"I generally am concerned about the rights of the motorist in these instances," said Howell, who as speaker will have the power to determine whether the bill will be sent to Militia and Police or the Transportation Committee.