If certain lawmakers get their way, truckers in Virginia will have to stay in the right-hand lane during winter storms.
Democratic Sen. Dave Marsden, the main architect of the bill, introduced it in late January, and it passed in the state Senate less than a month later by a vote of 26-13. It could become law as early as July 1 if it passes in the House of Delegates and the governor signs it.
Marsden proposed the bill in response to crashes and jackknifed 18-wheelers during a snowstorm in early January. Hundreds of drivers were stranded for 24 hours on a 40-mile stretch of Interstate 95 in Virginia.
“We’re still doing the autopsy on what happened that day and how the response could have been better,” Marsden told FreightWaves in mid-February. “But this was the only thing I could think of to do as chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee of getting a message out to truckers that, when these conditions start to arise, you need to take better care.”
The bill would restrict commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) to the right-hand lane of any Virginia highway during active snow, sleet or freezing rain, as long as the highway has two or more lanes in each direction.
Marsden was not necessarily blaming truckers for what happened last month. He said the idea behind the bill was to keep big rigs away from people driving cars who may lose control during winter storms, potentially triggering problems for truckers.
Finding common ground
Initially, there was some pushback from the Virginia Trucking Association (VTA), which thought some of the language was too restrictive. Originally, the rule required all truckers to use the right-hand lane. After discussions among Marsden, his committee and Dale Bennett, president and CEO of the VTA, the wording was revised to add “if reasonably possible and conditions safely permit.”
“That’s where that language came from. It was me being better educated by the people who do this for a living,” Marsden added.
Bennett told FreightWaves that he understood and appreciated what Marsden was trying to do but had issues with forcing all trucks into the far right lane.
“As with most right-lane restrictions, you create a wall of trucks that will make it extremely difficult and increase the safety risks of other people in vehicles trying to get off the interstate or enter the interstate,” Bennett said.
He added that the original language also created a potential conflict with Virginia’s Move Over Law, which requires drivers of CMVs and non-CMVs to, when possible, change lanes when approaching stationary emergency vehicles with flashing lights. Bennett said he didn’t want truckers to get stuck “having to choose which law to violate.”
“He [Marsden] amended the lane restriction language to allow truck drivers to drive defensively,” Bennett explained. “In other words, to allow people that need to get into the right-hand lane to leave the interstate, violating the Move Over Law.”
Bennett said he’s happy with how the bill turned out and it’s more of an educational message than anything else.
Marsden felt the same way. He said when drivers get trained on their CDL and take their drivers test, maybe this question of the right-hand lane rule will pop up and they’ll have to know the answer. He also wanted to send a message to the public that lawmakers are paying attention.
“I think the citizens of Virginia feel like, at least, the legislature’s awake at the switch and taking some action,” Marsden said.
The bill also restricts truckers from using cruise control or compression brakes during winter storms. The VTA was OK with this, and the bill includes it as a secondary offense. Police wouldn’t be allowed to pull over a trucker simply on suspicion of having used cruise control or compression brakes. But if a trucker were involved in an accident during hazardous winter weather, the police could charge the driver if the truck’s diagnostics indicate that either system was used during the storm.
Nobody knows yet exactly how the chain reaction accidents started on Jan. 3. The Virginia Department of Transportation has hired an independent firm to conduct a review, and Bennett is willing to revise the bill’s language further if necessary.
“If the review comes out with what we think are reasonable recommendations that the trucking industry can address, then we are more than happy to sit down at the table and talk about doing that,” Bennett said.
Marsden said the bill should end up on the House docket in early March, and he will explain it to House members. If it passes, it will go to Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin for final approval.
Marsden, a Democrat, thinks it will go through, but he has to convince the Republican-controlled House and a Republican governor. He thinks the chances are “fifty-fifty” that Youngkin will sign the bill if it lands on his desk.
“Everybody sees things differently. The governor or the House may want to amend it, but we’ve softened it up, pretty much,” Marsden said.
He’s confident that the law would not be burdensome to the trucking industry.
“I don’t think, at the end of the day, that I have done anything through this bill that would in any way hamper a responsible truck driver, or do anything that would make trucking harder,” Marsden said.
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