A road trip to Richmond may soon help improve some of Stafford County’s most dangerous roadways.
That’s the hope of a group of Colonial Forge High School students who traveled to the State Capitol on Monday to make their case for the passage of a proposed state bill known as “Helen’s Law.”
“It was super important for us to go there to not just have a bill with a number on it, but to put Helen’s face and her story with that bill,” said Rebecca Chung, a senior at Colonial Forge and member of the roadway safety group Changing Stafford’s Roads.
If passed July 1, Helen’s Law would require owners of land located within five feet of a roadway’s pavement to remove high grass, trees and excessive overgrowth and obstacles that “might dangerously obstruct the line of sight of a driver, be involved in a collision with a vehicle, or interfere with the safe operation of a vehicle.”
The proposed bill is named in memory of Helen Wang, a Colonial Forge student who was killed May 16 as she was turning left onto Kellogg Mill Road from the Abel Lake boat landing. Wang’s vehicle was struck by a work vehicle she never saw, largely because of overgrown trees and vegetation obstructing her view.
A cadre of 15 students from Changing Stafford’s Roads traveled to the State Capitol, with three of the students from the group addressing members of the Committee on Local Government regarding the new bill.
“It was such a big honor to testify and to have all of this happen because of Helen,” said Chung. “We knew we were doing it for her and that was exciting, because of everything that she instilled in us and put in our lives.”
“They’ve worked hard on this issue. They came up with this idea on their own,” said Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill. “They did their research and they made their case to the committee and I can’t tell you how proud and impressed I am with them.”
Stuart said Senate Bill 225 authorizes any locality, by ordinance, to require private landowners to clear vegetation at intersections near their property within five feet of the pavement. Stuart said those landowners who do not comply after reasonable notice is given could be charged by the locality for the cost of the cleanup.
Stuart said the committee passed the bill Monday in its original form, but the bill does contain some minor issues that Stuart will iron out. The bill’s next stop is the Senate floor for a vote, and Stuart is confident a bill will be passed that meets the safety goals and the intentions of the student roadway safety advocacy group.
“The bill does have some issues, but the committee passed it on with my promise to work out the kinks between now and the time we get it on the floor,” said Stuart. “We will have a bill at the end of the session that accomplishes what these young people want us to do.”
A similar bill, House Bill 284, is also being sponsored by Dels. Joshua Cole, D–Fredericksburg, and Mark Cole, R–Spotsylvania.
Stuart said it’s typical to run one version of a bill through the House and one through the Senate, then have both sides meet in conference to work out the differences.
“It’s oftentimes easier to do it that way, but in this particular instance, those young people lobbied all of us to carry a bill in memory of Helen Wang, so we all did,” said Stuart.
The students were notified last Friday that they were scheduled to testify in Richmond on Monday, giving them just two days to prepare.
“When we found out we were going to Richmond, it became 100 percent crazy, stressful and exciting,” said senior Izzy Motta. “We reached out to our teachers and to Helen’s teachers about our trip. We spent the weekend researching data and writing speeches. We wanted to make sure we were prepared.”
Stafford Supervisor Tom Coen, who is an advanced placement government teacher at Colonial Forge, has been a mentor for members of the Changing Stafford’s Roads since the group formed. He traveled with the group to Richmond on Monday.
“You could tell by observing the senators on Monday that [the students] clearly did their research,” said Coen. “They knew the issues, knew the Dillon Rule, they just knew so much, they impressed the adults.”
Since Wang’s death, Changing Stafford’s Roads has been providing roadway safety information to students through social media channels and will soon launch a newsletter and podcasts. Members of the group regularly attend Board of Supervisors meetings, where they continue to address dangerous roadway safety issues that exist in the county.
By taking their concerns and their passion for safer roads to lawmakers in Richmond, the students hope to someday improve safety on all of the state’s rural roads.
“It’s 110 percent worth it to be able to try something to make this world better,” said Motta. “Without a doubt, it’s worth it, even dealing with all the schoolwork that was missed Monday. I’m in awe with what’s been accomplished.”
“This is the way our system is supposed to work,” said Stuart. “You, as a citizen see a problem that needs to be addressed and you petition your government, because the government is for the people, by the people and of the people.
“The students did it the right way and I’m impressed with them.”