Friday, October 24, 2008

Obscure Virginia Driving Law

I just received an email message from the friend of a friend of a friend -- or something like that -- regarding a fairly obscure Virginia driving law that has been on the books about six years as of this writing. "FYI," my friend wrote to me. "New law in Virginia. Good to know ... it is being heavily enforced." The original and anonymous writer's tale of woe is quoted below:

"In case you are not aware, there is a relatively new law in Va, and I want to give all of you a heads up because of a traffic citation I received last Sunday morning. As I was traveling in the right lane on the Dulles Toll Rd to the airport, I came upon a stopped state trooper on the right shoulder who had stopped a vehicle; he was pulled all the way over on shoulder. I was driving the speed limit and remained in my lane and even slowed down; there was a speeding car that passed in the left lane, thus I stayed in my lane. The next thing I know, the trooper is behind us with his lights flashing and I thought he was going to go after the speeding car, but instead he pulled me over.

The first thing the officer said was that I was not speeding, but the reason he pulled me over was because I was supposed to move over to the left lane prior to passing a stopped emergency vehicle. I told him I wasn't aware of the law and he said he had just gotten hit the previous day by someone who hadn't moved over. I thought he would give me a warning since I wasn't aware of the law and was driving responsibly and haven't gotten a ticket in over 10 years, but he gave me a summons where I have to appear in court. This is a class 1 misdemeanor violation which can result up to $2500 in fines and up to 1 year in jail. I've included links regarding the law, which of course I found after the fact, so you are all aware."

I did check out the various links the writer provided and verified that the basic facts underlying the story all seem to be true (my own readers can check these out at and

Knowing the driving laws of one's own state is certainly a good idea and I am glad to help spread the word about this one (especially as Virginia has in recent years shown itself to be somewhat oppressive on this subject). But I will note a few things beyond what the original message covered.

First, it struck me while I was reading through this that I always move over a lane whenever I am coming up on any roadside activity, flashing lights or not. I don't recall anyone ever telling me this or knowing it was a law, and it just seems obvious to me that passersby should stay the hell out of the way of anything happening at the edge of the highway (unless, of course, it is something that requires them to render assistance).

Second, I think any contention that this is a "new" law is stretching the point a little bit; the link to the article about the law is -- perhaps interestingly -- exactly one year old as of this writing and the law was five years old then. Six years is not exactly new.

Third, while the underlying facts of this story are true and do bear paying attention to, the writer does not mention what happened when he went to court, what the ultimate penalties leveled against him were, etc. The law in question, for example, does state that a driver should "if reasonable, with due regard for safety and traffic conditions, yield the right-of-way by making a lane change into a lane not adjacent to that occupied by the stationary emergency vehicle or (ii) if changing lanes would be unreasonable or unsafe, proceed with due caution and maintain a safe speed for highway conditions." So it certainly does sound as if there are provisions for making a claim that it would not have safe to change lanes. In the absence of additional information like this, the email warning really only provides half a story, and that begs some questions.

Which brings me to my final point, which is that I am always a little suspicious of the motives of anyone who disseminates stories like this anonymously. To the extent that they are making the roads safer by helping people understand driving laws and may help prevent someone from getting an unnecessary ticket, they deserve our thanks. But in light of the likelihood that they are pursuing some sort of an agenda that they are leaving as obscure as the law they are complaining about -- such as lobbying against it -- readers need to maintain a healthy skepticism.

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