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Virginia likely to see push for right-lane truck restriction during snow

Head of state’s transportation committee could introduce legislation in coming days

In the wake of what has been described as a snowbound traffic jam from hell on Virginia’s Interstate 95, a state senator is set to introduce legislation that would restrict trucks to the right lanes on much of the commonwealth’s interstate highways when frozen precipitation is falling.

David Marsden, a Democratic state senator from northern Virginia who also is chairman of the Senate’s transportation committee, told FreightWaves that the introduction of legislation would probably come next week. But he added there are a few issues that needed to be worked out first.

The rough outline of the proposed legislation would require trucks to stay in the right lane of a Virginia interstate in the event of what Marsden called “active sleet or snowfall.” The senator said an issue that needs to be addressed is whether the restriction would be limited to stretches of the interstates where there are three or more lanes, which in Virginia would include most of I-95 and portions of I-64 between Richmond and the Hampton Roads area. 

There are more than 500 miles of I-81 in Virginia, though only a small portion of it is more than two lanes. Interstate 66 out of Washington has three or more lanes for a significant percentage of the highway, though it is a highway that runs less than 80 miles, all of it in Virginia.

Marsden also noted that in a state that has a generally warmer climate, the number of times the law might kick in could be measured in hours per year. For example, even though snow is more likely to fall in the mountains of western Virginia on I-81 than in the less-elevated landscape of I-95, much of 81 is two lanes from Winchester to Bristol. 

Dale Bennett, the president of the roughly 300-member Virginia Trucking Association, said he has had discussions with Marsden about the bill, adding that communication between the VTA and the senator is frequent, given his role as chairman of the transportation committee.

“It’s not surprising we would see some things after that storm and what people had to go through,” Bennett said.  

Bennett said he preferred not to comment on any specific restrictions that might end up in the legislation and would wait to see an actual bill introduced before doing so. 

“I understand what he is trying to do,” Bennett said. “He is trying to prevent trucks from jackknifing in inclement weather,” with the idea that a truck changing lanes is more likely to jackknife. 

Jackknifed tractor-trailers have been cited as one cause of the enormous snow-driven backups on I-95.

Bennett said he believes Marsden is “under the impression that changing lanes and doing things like that contributes to jackknifing” but a “loss of traction” is far more of a cause. 

“We all know a truck can be doing a straight line and if it loses traction, it can jackknife,” Bennett said. “I don’t think keeping trucks to one lane in inclement weather is going to reduce the risk.”

Bennett also said putting all trucks in the right lane might cause problems from passenger cars trying to get over from the middle or left lanes if they are exiting to the right.

Marsden does not think the issue of cars having difficulty exiting interstates is a significant one and said keeping trucks in the right lane would protect truckers from dealing with “amateur drivers” who act in such a way that it forces a quick reaction that could cause a jackknife. 

Both Bennett and Marsden said a significant issue that needs to be addressed is the state’s Move Over law, which requires vehicles in the right lane to shift to the left as they are coming up on a state trooper pulled over to the side for ticketing, a car in distress or any other situation. 

The issues are “good discussion points to have,” Marsden said. “We just have to hear it from those who have lived through the experiences.”

The detail of what needs to be considered was driven home by Marsden, who said there are four left-lane exits throughout the state’s interstate system. Before drafting the legislation, the question of how to handle those unique situations would need to be addressed. 

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John Kingston

John has an almost 40-year career covering commodities, most of the time at S&P Global Platts. He created the Dated Brent benchmark, now the world’s most important crude oil marker. He was Director of Oil, Director of News, the editor in chief of Platts Oilgram News and the “talking head” for Platts on numerous media outlets, including CNBC, Fox Business and Canada’s BNN. He covered metals before joining Platts and then spent a year running Platts’ metals business as well. He was awarded the International Association of Energy Economics Award for Excellence in Written Journalism in 2015. In 2010, he won two Corporate Achievement Awards from McGraw-Hill, an extremely rare accomplishment, one for steering coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster and the other for the launch of a public affairs television show, Platts Energy Week.