Let's get tough on lethal drivers

GETTING THERE

December 11, 2006|By MICHAEL DRESSER

If you were to walk around the Inner Harbor firing bullets wildly into the air, would you get a ticket and have your gun handed back the next day?

No way. You'd be facing felony or serious misdemeanor charges -- if you were lucky enough to get arrested alive. And say goodbye to the gun.

So how is that behavior any more homicidal or suicidal than driving at 120 mph in a 55-mph zone on the Baltimore Beltway?

That's what police charged Patrick T. Britton-Harr with doing Oct. 8 -- along with negligent driving and alcohol offenses. Last month, he was charged with vehicular manslaughter in the Nov. 24 death of a midshipman who was a passenger in Britton-Harr's 1997 BMW coupe -- the same vehicle he was driving when he was stopped the previous month.

Britton-Harr, 22, of Pensacola, Fla., is entitled to the legal presumption of innocence in both incidents. But the laws that allow unrestricted driving privileges six weeks after someone is charged with turning the Beltway into his personal drag strip are entitled to no presumption other than absurdity.

One-hundred-twenty on the Beltway? Why not call it reckless endangerment -- the same charge the theoretical Inner Harbor shooter could face? It's a misdemeanor that carries a five-year jail term and a $5,000 fine.

"These are offenses that would merit the harshest sentences," said Richard Retting, senior engineer at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "This is premeditated, reckless and clearly puts many people at risk -- absolutely including law enforcement."

Unfortunately, the General Assembly doesn't agree. It has written into the reckless endangerment law a specific exemption for "conduct involving the use of a motor vehicle."

A modest proposal: Strike that clause. Add a definition that explicitly brings triple-digit speeding under the statute.

There is a growing class of motorists on the road known as extreme speeders. They like to peel down public highways at speeds well over 100 mph. It's something they take pride in and believe they are entitled to do. (No evidence has emerged to indicate Britton-Harr was a part of this subculture.)

Google "super speeders" and you'll see their self-glorifying Web sites. "Welcome to the world of the Super Speeders, where horsepower rules, and the rules of the road don't apply," one says. The pornographic payoff on the videos they sell is often a speedometer shot showing the needle pushing toward 200 mph.

Fines and points won't shut down these entrepreneurs and their acolytes. If you're tooling down the highway at 100 mph or more, you're making a statement that you don't give a rat's tail for your life or those of others. What, me worry about insurance rates?

Under Maryland law, if you go more than 40 mph over the speed limit -- a relatively poky 95 mph where Britton-Harr was pulled over -- you face a penalty of $530 and five points on your driving record. Every mile per hour over that is free -- even if you're going the speed of sound.

In fiscal 2002, there were 2,543 such cases filed in Maryland. By 2006, it was up to 3,003 -- an 18 percent increase over four years.

If you are charged under this section, you don't even have to go to court. Get the money from Dad and mail it in.

Because he was charged with driving while impaired, Britton-Harr was arrested after his October traffic stop and had to wait until the paperwork was finished to get his keys back. But a driver pulled over for going 120 mph while sober would be sent along with nothing more than a ticket and a stern warning.

Wouldn't it make a tad more sense to bust these folks -- drunk or sober -- on the spot? Deny them bail unless they turned in their driver's licenses? Let the Motor Vehicle Administration require them, preferably at great expense, to dismantle any modifications that soup up the vehicle? Have a judge evaluate whether they are suicidal?

In Yorkshire, according to England's Evening Gazette, law enforcement authorities give extreme speeders a court date within days of the offense -- often resulting in the loss of driving privileges. That sounds like a timely intervention.

The Hawaii Department of Transportation tried to delve into the mind of the extreme speeder by holding focus groups of young drivers. One of the recurring reasons given for triple-digit speeding was "the adrenaline rush."

"Part of the risk and rush is knowing you might die," one participant said.

This is any less dangerous than drunken driving?

When asked what could deter extreme speeders, participants in the Hawaii focus groups identified one sanction that could get the message across: confiscation of the car.

Why not? The word would rapidly spread on the Net that Maryland is the wrong place to go to make Super Speeder videos.

Sure it would be sad if some fine young man lost his Beamer. But somehow it's a little less moving than the loss of the life of Midshipman Charles B. "Ben" Carr, Britton-Harr's passenger, at the age of 20.

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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