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| Shapiro, Appleton & Washburn

The Commonwealth of Virginia begins its fiscal year on July 1, meaning — some would say ironically — that each year, Virginians welcome a new slate of laws at the same time that they prepare to celebrate America’s independence on July 4th.

For 2011, fourfour important changes to driving and vehicle and passenger safety regulations have taken effect. Three of the new laws have the potential to protect all adults and children who travel on VA roads and highways. The fourth, however, seems to value car and truck drivers’ convenience over protecting the lives of motorcycle, moped and bicycle riders’ lives.

As a lifelong resident of Virginia and as a Virginia Beach, VA-based personal injury attorney who has represented victims of car, truck and motorcycle accidents caused by other motorists for nearly 25 years, I have a personal and professional interest in the state’s driving laws. When they change, I often have to adapt my personal behavior and professional practice to the new regulations. Knowing this is the reality for many people who will read this article, I list below the summaries of the 2011 updates to Virginia’s motor vehicle laws and follow each DMV-prepared summary of the regulation with insights based on my decades of experience representing clients in injury and wrongful death lawsuits stemming from VA traffic wrecks.

Harsher Penalties for Underage Drunk Drivers

Teens who drink alcohol and drive face harsher penalties, including loss of their driver’s license for a year and either a $500 minimum fine or 50 hours of community service. The previous punishment was loss of license for six months and a fine of no more than $500.

No one should never get behind the wheel if they are impaired by alcohol or drugs. And, under Virginia law, no one younger than 21 years of age should have access to beer, wine or liquor. But teens and college-age adults cause serious and, sometimes fatal, DUI/DWI accidents every week in the Commonwealth. Stiffening penalties for driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated are just one necessary step toward keeping drunk and drugged drivers off the road.

Videotaping Drivers Who Fail to Stop for School Buses

Violators of school bus traffic laws may be recorded by video cameras mounted inside school buses since a new law allows the devices. The cameras may record license plates, and the date and time of any violations. Fines for these violations are payable to the local school division.

The seven cities my personal injury law firm colleagues and I primarily serve — Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach — each saw at least one school bus accident during the 2010-2011 school year. Practically all of those collisions between buses filled with children and cars, SUVs and pickup trucks have several youngsters. While none of those wrecks happened while students were boarding or getting off a bus, any law that can prevent such a tragedy from occurring is welcome.

Lights and Sirens for Emergency Vehicles at Intersections

Emergency vehicles such as ambulances or police cruisers must flash their emergency lights or sound a siren before proceeding through a red traffic signal or stop sign. Or, the driver of an emergency vehicle must come to a complete stop before proceeding through a red light.

Police officers, firefighters, EMTs and other emergency responders regularly save lives at the risk of their own. Sadly, the incidents in which ambulances, police cars and fire trucks do wind up in fatal accidents appears to be increasing. Requiring emergency vehicles to sound their sirens and flash their lights while on a call could potentially save lives.

Running Red Lights on Mopeds and Motorcycles

Motorcycles, mopeds and bicycles may treat a red light as a stop sign if their bike fails to trigger the traffic light and they have waited two full cycles of the light or two minutes, whichever is shorter.

Two-wheeled vehicles can sit at red lights for several cycles without tripping the weight or magnetic sensors that change traffic signals. This inconveniences riders and anyone in a car, truck, van or SUV behind them. But is eliminating delays worth putting motorcyclists and bicyclists at increased risk for injury and death? I’d argue no, but it remains to be seen if accidents involving bikes increase once riders begin exercising their new prerogative to run red lights after waiting two minutes.


About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.

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