Panel tables speed limit bill
Meanwhile, a bill that phases in mandatory boating safety courses by 2016 was approved.

By Mason Adams
(804) 697-1584

RICHMOND -- Members of a House committee decided Wednesday that the way to promote safety on Smith Mountain Lake is through education and not speed limits.

A subcommittee of the House Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee voted to table a bill to place 35 mph nighttime speed limits on Smith Mountain Lake, all but killing the bill for the year.

Meanwhile, the full committee voted 19-3 during a morning meeting to approve House Bill 1627, which phases in mandatory boating safety courses for motorboat operators by 2016.

The bill now will go to the full Virginia House of Delegates.

Speed limits and mandatory boating classes were both recommended by a water safety task force in 2005 after a summer boating collision killed a Moneta couple.

But with one exception, none of the resulting bills last year were passed by the General Assembly.

HB 1627's sponsor, Del. Kathy Byron, R-Campbell County, said the difference this year was due to hard work by a number of supporters and lake safety advocates who worked to garner support for mandatory boating classes.

The Virginia Safe Boating Alliance, formed last June, has worked to pull boating groups together on the subject.

When Byron started listing the large number of groups that have endorsed HB 1627, one delegate responded by jokingly waving a paper as a white flag of surrender.

"The alliance did a tremendous job in taking the time to come together with their expertise and garner the support," Byron said after the vote.

The same subcommittee that killed the speed limits approved a similar education bill sponsored by Del. Allen Dudley, R-Rocky Mount. It changed his bill, however, to reflect Byron's. Dudley's bill likely will be combined with Byron's on the House floor.

Subcommittee members, however, were more wary of Dudley's HB 2373, which would set nighttime speed limits.

Dudley had introduced a similar bill last year, but it was tabled after officials with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries told subcommittee members they did not run radar on boats and had no data on what proper speed limits should be.

Since then, the Game Department has obtained radar and has trained wardens to use it. And they've gathered a little bit of data. Col. Mike Bise, law enforcement division director for the Game Department, told the subcommittee the average nighttime speed for boats on Smith Mountain Lake was 28.7 mph, which is below Dudley's proposed speed limit.

Subcommittee members also heard support for the speed limit bill from Eric Spencer, whose mother and stepfather were killed in the August 2005 collision on the lake, and Mike Toalson, who's lived on Smith Mountain Lake for 15 years.

Toalson said he owns a powerboat and likes to run it on the lake during the day, but sees the need for limits at night.

"It's time for us to put a speed limit on the lake at night, and at night only," Toalson said.

An official representing the Virginia Association of Marine Industries opposed the bill, however, saying that current regulations allow authorities to prosecute the operation of watercraft at "an unsafe speed" as a Class 1 misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of between $250 and $2,500 and up to a year in jail.

Del. Clarke Hogan, R-Halifax County, agreed and made the motion to table the speed limit bill.

"Earlier today, in conjunction with Del. Dudley's bill that will be part of Del. Byron's bill, we have made a dramatic step forward in boater safety," Hogan said. "And it sounds like they've addressed the problems ... I think that's plenty for a day."

Another mandatory boating education bill, Senate Bill 1241 filed by Sen. Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg, should reach the floor of the full Senate for consideration today.