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Going 11 miles per hour over the speed limit on some interstate sections in Virginia could lead to a reckless driving charge later this summer.
Virginia has begun a process of evaluating whether to increase the speed limit from 65 mph to 70 mph on its interstate highways. Several parts of interstates 77 and 81 in Western Virginia are under consideration.
Because the legal definition of reckless driving includes going faster than 80 mph, the custom of some drivers to exceed the limit by 10 mph will bring them dangerously close to a major legal sanction.
“The penalties for reckless driving go through the roof,” when compared to a regular speeding ticket that yields only a fine, according to Richmond defense attorney Mitch Wells.
For starters, a motorist charged with reckless driving must go to court.
A judge can give a convicted reckless driver a six-month license suspension, $2,500 fine and a year in jail under the maximum penalty, which is usually reserved for aggravated cases.
In addition to any court penalties, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles adds six negative points to a driver’s record that an insurance company could consult to review the driver’s premium.
The laws could become important as soon as the Virginia Department of Transportation considers more than 700 miles for increased speed.
VDOT already has raised the speed limit on I-295 in the Richmond area to 70 mph. More could come this summer.
One Southwest Virginia stretch to be studied right away for a possible 70 mph limit is I-81 in Botetourt County between mile markers 151 and 179.
In the New River Valley, I-81 between Fort Chiswell and Christiansburg is pegged for a prompt evaluation.
Wells is predicting that one effect of higher speed limits will be more business for himself and other defense attorneys.
Police who patrol those places where 70 mph becomes the speed limit will not add 5 mph to the leeway they give speeding drivers, officials said.
“Any increase in speed limits has no effect on our enforcement efforts. The speed limit is the speed limit and state police will enforce the posted speed,” said state police spokeswoman Corinne Geller.
Del. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, a former state trooper who sponsored the speed limit-increase bill, agreed.
Carrico said the rationale for the higher limit is to increase safety by reducing the difference in speed among vehicles.
The theory goes like this: When vehicles travel at the same speed in the same direction — even high speeds, as on interstates — it reduces the need for passing and the potential for collisions, according to VDOT spokesman Jason Bond.
When the speed limit is set below the design speed, as it is right now for I-81, which was designed for 70 mph, speed variance increases, and along with it the potential for crashes, Bond said.
Carrico said he doubts that speeds will rise significantly where the speed limit goes up. For instance, 80 mph is an uncomfortable velocity for many drivers, he said.
That said, Carrico intends in early 2011 to ask the General Assembly to reclassify speeding in the low 80s as a ticket with an elevated fine and not reckless driving.
Carrico said he does not want to entice people to drive 80 mph or faster “but we understand how easily that happens.”
A tweak of the law will “take it out of a criminal nature,” he said.