RICHMOND (AP) - Starting today, new laws in Virginia take affect designed to change the way you drive and how much it costs to do it.
Police in Hampton Roads and across the state are enforcing a tougher law on texting and driving. Using a smartphone to text, read email or do something similar can get drivers pulled over and ticketed. Texting had been a secondary offense, meaning officers could cite offenders only if they were stopped for a superseding violation such as speeding or running a red light. Now, working an iPhone while driving means a $125 first-offense fine, up from $20, and more for subsequent violations.
According to the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, texting while driving is six times more likely to cause and accident than driving while intoxicated.
Janet Brooking with DriveSmart Virginia, says Virginians should just stop texting behind the wheel.
"Just stop doing it. Change your behavior. You don't want the financial penalties. You don't want to risk being in a crash and hurting someone or yourself. So just stop doing it," she said.
Virginia is the 37th state plus Washington D.C., to make ‘texting while driving’ a primary enforcement offense.
The state's sweeping new transportation funding law also takes effect Monday, changing gasoline and diesel taxes, imposing annual fees on hybrid and electrical cars, and boosting sales taxes on all conventional retail sales.
None will be felt more — immediately and on a daily basis — than the 2013 transportation reforms, the first overhaul of Virginia's failing 27-year-old system for funding its 58,000-mile web of existing highways and for building new ones to alleviate highway gridlock, particularly in Washington, D.C.'s congested suburbs.
The new law, now the top legislative legacy of lame-duck Gov. Bob McDonnell, will generate up to $1.4 billion per year through several adjustments to taxes and fees. Conservatives in McDonnell's own Republican Party railed against it as the largest tax increase in Virginia history, and two senior GOP House members lost their seats for supporting it, defeated by primary challengers with tea party backing.
House Bill 2313 passed with overwhelming Democratic support on the final day of the legislative session, creating a bizarre alliance between McDonnell and the 2013 Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Terry McAuliffe, while the GOP nominee, Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, opposed the measure and nearly derailed it with an 11th-hour legal opinion.
One reason conservatives vilified the compromise was an increase in the state's share of the sales tax from 4 percent to 4.3 percent with larger increases due in planning districts serving northern Virginia and Hampton Roads for enhanced regional transportation projects exclusive to those areas. When local sales taxes are added, the total sales tax in most localities will increase from 5 percent to 5.3 percent, boosting the tax paid on a $10 item from 50 cents to 53 cents.
The new law reformulates the 17.5 cents-per-gallon fuel tax that hasn't changed since 1986, ditching the volume-based tax for one tied to cost. Starting Monday, a 3.5 percent tax will be paid on gasoline at the wholesale level — a cost that jobbers and dealers will presumably reflect in pump prices. In theory at least, that should reduce the cost to drivers of gasoline-powered cars by about 6 cents per gallon from existing tax, or a savings of $1.20 on a 20-gallon fill-up from the current Virginia average gasoline price just under $3.40 per gallon.
The new tax on diesel, however, is 6 percent of cost, something that chafes big-rig drivers and owners of personal vehicles that use the higher-priced fuel. At last week's average per-gallon cost of about $3.70 in Virginia, they stand to pay 4 cents more per gallon, or 80 cents more than the existing tax for a 20-gallon fill-up.
Gasoline taxes could increase to 5.1 percent unless a quarrelsome Congress enacts federal legislation allowing Virginia and other states to collect sales taxes on Internet or catalog sales involving out-of-state retailers by Jan. 1, 2015. The 6 percent diesel tax rate would not change.
The new tax structure is designed to keep pace with fuel price increases. The steady climb in prices, particularly since 2008, hastened the obsolescence of the volume-based gasoline tax. When it went into effect 27 years ago, gasoline was about one-third of today's prices. As fuel costs increased, people drove less and cars became more fuel-efficient, decreasing the fuel consumption and the taxes collected on it. As revenues ebbed, costs for asphalt, concrete, steel and the labor necessary to build roads soared, forcing Virginia for years to shelve tens of billions of dollars in needed construction projects for lack of money.
There's more grief for owners of hybrid, alternative fuel or electrical vehicles. An extra $64 will be tacked onto annual vehicle registration fees as a share of paying for better roads and bridges.
AAA says July 1st also brings new age restrictions for passengers during the initial year of licensure for teen drivers. Provisional driver’s license holders will not be allowed to operate a motor vehicle with more than one passenger under the age of 21 in the vehicle unless the driver is accompanied by a parent or person acting in loco parentis who is occupying a seat beside the driver. Currently the restriction is no more than one person under the age of 18, during the first year of licensure.
“Raising the age restriction of passengers decreases the potential distractions for these inexperienced drivers, give them more opportunity to practice their driving skills safely”, explained Georjeane Blumling, Ph.D., vice president for AAA Tidewater Virginia.
Titling and registration of mopeds will be required, as well as distinctive license plates for low-speed vehicles. The law will also require all moped operators to carry government-issued photo identification and wear a face shield, safety glasses, or goggles if the moped is not equipped with safety glass or a windshield.