RICHMOND – A relative of a Virginia man killed in a crash with a heavily modified truck in Mecklenburg County last month on Thursday painted a grim picture of the fatal accident when she spoke to lawmakers in favor of legislation banning so-called Carolina Squat vehicles.
“Picture BJ’s truck completely as a tin can, and the transmission of that other truck that pushed him back into his own truck,” Ann Taylor Kallam said of the impact that left her future brother-in law, 27-year old Brayden “BJ” Upton, dead when his Chevy collided with a squatted pick-up truck on Feb. 16.
Kallam had joined a special meeting of the House Transportation Committee via Zoom in support of Senate Bill 777, sponsored by state Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, who had filed his legislation on short notice earlier this month after getting unanimous consent by the Senate. The measure made it out of the full Senate on Tuesday and was sent to the House, where the panel unanimously approved it Thursday morning before sending it to the House floor.
Peake seeks to ban the uncanny new trend where truck owners modify the suspension of their vehicle so the front is pointing towards the sky and the rear end is pointing downward. His bill would make it a misdemeanor to modify the height of the front bumper of a vehicle to be four or more inches greater than the height of the rear bumper. It would also make it a primary offense, allowing law enforcement to initiate a traffic stop.
“A lot of us saw it on the news,” Peake said of the fatal collision that killed Upton. “When we found out, we talked with Virginia State Police, and we found out that this is not a primary offense, so they can’t pull over, they can’t stop them when they see these vehicles on the road, so we came up with this bill.”
The trend was born not in the Carolinas but out of Baja Racing in California. It quickly spread in the South after hundreds of drivers posted photos of their squatting vehicles on the social media platform Instagram. “All these bad ideas start out in the Carolinas and work their way up, so we got to put a stop to what they are sending this way,” Peake said. The modification is already prohibited in North Carolina and similar legislation is pending in the South Carolina legislature.
Wayne Huggins, executive director of the Virginia State Police Association, told the committee that he recently saw four squatted trucks pass by him when he stopped at a traffic light in Kenbridge in Lunenburg County. “This is an increasingly prevalent problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.
Huggins put the modification into a practical context. “If you were to walk out of your house in the morning and for some reason the hood of your car was up, would you get in the car and drive down the road, or would you shut the hood before you drove down the road?” he asked the panel.
“Obviously, you’d shut the hood,” Huggins said. “The Carolina Squat vehicles have the exact same effect as leaving your hood up. They are jacked so far up in the front, you can’t see. The second problem it causes is, if the front of your vehicle is like this, where are your headlights pointing? Straight up in the air, so they become even more dangerous at night time. This is an extremely dangerous situation that needs to be rectified.”
Del. David Reid, D-Loudoun, wanted to know why current law prohibits a law enforcement officer from stopping a vehicle if the driver can’t see over his hood. “Why isn’t this reckless driving already?” he asked.
Huggins responded that there currently is no benchmark for obstructed vision and that a police officer simply wouldn’t be able to tell without being in said vehicle. “The trooper can’t say that he can’t see. The hood may be up there, but the trooper is not in the car,” he said.
Peake added that if a squatted truck rear-ended another vehicle, it wouldn’t hit the bumper of the latter, creating an additional safety hazard. He also said that he had initially considered prohibiting the jacking up of a hood by a more lenient five or six inches. “I didn’t want any pretextual stops, that’s not what this bill is out,” he said. “But we didn’t want people to drive from North Carolina or South Carolina into Virginia and have different measurements, so we settled on four inches because that appears to be the standard that the states around us have landed on.”
In the Senate, Peake’s colleagues Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County, and Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, also signed on as co-sponsors of his legislation banning squatted trucks. “We have a broad consensus that these are dangerous and we need to get them off the road,” Peake said.
In the House, Del. Thomas Wright, R-Victoria, signed on as well. “This was a tragedy that was waiting to happen,” Wright said Thursday. “I had many people come up to me and ask what we had done about it, the person that was killed, BJ Upton, it affected his family greatly. He was left behind a young son and the rest of his family.”
Kallam told the panel that her would-be brother-in-law’s death could have been prevented. “We can’t bring BJ back, but we can prevent this from happening to someone else if we make it illegal and have some regulations on these trucks,” she said. “No one is saying not to modify your vehicle, we are just saying to do it safely, and this bill is about saving lives. We believe that this bill will save lives.”