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House panel puts brakes on highway safety bills

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The House subcommittee said the measures would intrude too far on Virginians' personal freedom.

By Landmark News Service

RICHMOND — It appears Virginia drivers are unlikely to face new restrictions this year on their behavior behind the wheel.
A batch of highway safety bills — dealing with seat belts, cell phones, open alcohol containers, texting, and smoking with children present — were rejected Thursday by a House subcommittee, meaning they are unlikely to advance in this year's General Assembly.
In many cases, sponsors of the measures presented statistical evidence that they would save lives. Most had vocal supporters on hand, such as doctors' groups, insurance companies and safe-driving organizations.
None of it was enough to sway the subcommittee of the Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee. The bills, many of which have failed in previous sessions, were all well intended, panel members said, but they would intrude too far on Virginians' personal freedom.
HB 2339, introduced by Del. Joe Morrissey, D-Richmond, would have prohibited smoking in a vehicle with a child younger than 13 present.
The evidence is overwhelming that exposing children to secondhand smoke in such a small, enclosed space is harmful to their still-developing lungs, Morrissey told the panel. He said a child sitting in a car for an hour under such conditions gets the equivalent exposure of smoking 10 cigarettes.
But the measure "opens the door to further intrusion by government into the lives of families," said Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, the subcommittee chairman. He asked where it would stop: Will the state next try to prohibit smoking in one's home?
HB 2136, sponsored by Del. Bill Barlow, D-Isle of Wight County, would have made failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense. It is now a secondary offense, meaning police can cite violators only in connection with another offense.
Supporters said it would be the single most effective highway safety measure the assembly could take.
But the legislature must strike "a balance between personal safety and private freedom," Cline said.
HB 1637, sponsored by Del. Bob Purkey, R-Virginia Beach, would have banned open alcohol containers in a moving vehicle.
HB 1630, introduced by Del. Vivian Watts, D-Fairfax County, would have banned talking on a cellphone while driving. HB 1424, sponsored by Del. Rosalyn Dance, D-Petersburg, would have prohibited drivers from using cell phones except in hands-free mode.
HB 1489, offered by Del. Lionell Spruill, D-Chesapeake, and HB 1546, sponsored by Del. Kaye Kory, D-Fairfax County, would have made texting while driving a primary offense. It is already a secondary offense.