Unsafe drivers targeted, missed

January 07, 2008|By MICHAEL DRESSER

Aggressive driving is the No. 1 concern of Maryland motorists, according to AAA.

So after last week's column about how many traffic tickets were being given out for various violations in Maryland, Mike Agetstine of Pikesville wanted to know how many were being issued for that offense.

Not many.

Like about a dozen other states, Maryland has an aggressive-driving statute - passed by the General Assembly in 2001.

According to law enforcement officers, it's been a bust - and the numbers bear them out.

In 2006, police statewide gave out 935 tickets for the offense - compared with 5,693 for the more tried-and-true charge of reckless driving. Only 69 aggressive-driving tickets were issued in Baltimore all that year. Baltimore County was good for 128.

At a recent conference on traffic safety convened by the State Highway Administration, law enforcement officials from around the region agreed the statute is ineffective - largely because judges find it confusing.

"The reality is it's not a ticket that officers are writing," said Howard County police Chief William McMahon, whose department issued 52 in 2006.

The legislature didn't make it easy for police to prove aggressive driving when it specified that three separate lesser offenses must occur consecutively to support the charge. Rhode Island, by contrast, requires only two offenses to be committed in tandem.

Thomas J. Gianni of the State Highway Administration oversees Maryland's version of the multistate Smooth Operator program, which specifically targets aggressive driving. He agreed that the aggressive driving statute is seldom used, saying that it's "problematic" for officers to observe three separate violations before pulling a motorist over.

Data on outcomes of the tickets weren't readily available, but police at the conference said that judges weren't convicting many drivers under the aggressive-driving statute, so officers have become reluctant to write them.

There was some discussion at the conference about seeking a fix in the law, but most seemed skeptical that a retooled aggressive-driving statute would be more enforceable.

"If you can't get the judges to recognize it after three [offenses], how are you going to get them to recognize it after two?" one transportation worker said.

When officers confront truly egregious behavior behind the wheel, many prefer to charge offenders with reckless driving, which carries a $510 fine and six points on one's driving record, compared with $370 and five points under the aggressive-driving law. Police in Maryland wrote 5,693 reckless-driving tickets in 2006.

But even that charge can be difficult to make stick because it requires a finding of "wanton and willful disregard" for safety. When facing penalties that high, people lawyer up. And good attorneys are experts in getting judges to question officers' judgment when it can't be objectively measured.

So perhaps when legislators gather in Annapolis this week, they should try another approach to traffic safety.

For instance, they might want to look at Virginia's reckless-driving law, which treats the offense as a serious misdemeanor and requires an appearance in court. It carries a sentence of up to a year in jail, $2,500 in fines and a six-month license suspension. Best of all, it give judges a clear definition of what's reckless, including exceeding the speed limit by 20 mph or going 80 mph anytime, anywhere.

Now that's a LAW.

The hammer should come down even harder on those who challenge the laws of physics more flagrantly.

When somebody is caught going more than 30 above the limit, Maryland's current $290 fine and five points is a joke. Mandatory weekends in jail, coupled with a long license suspension, might reduce the thrill of extreme speeds a little.

Driving 40 mph or more above the speed limit now carries a fine of $530 and five points. But that wasn't enough to deter 3,223 drivers in 2006 - up from 3,041 in 2005. For 632 people, that was such a minor matter that they (or their indulgent parents) simply mailed in their payment.

Let me suggest an alternative to handing these people a ticket and letting them go. Arrest them, just as you would a drunken driver, and charge them with felony reckless endangerment. Confiscate their vehicles. Why wait until they've achieved lethal results?

Lawmakers might also want to take a look at the quaint judicial practice of tampering with police radar readings.

Here's a for-instance: A 19-year- old man is clocked at 73 mph in a 45-mph zone last September. In Virginia this would be reckless driving, but, no, this is Anne Arundel County. The defendant goes into District Court (after one failure to appear) and is convicted by the judge of going only 54 mph - cutting a potential $160 fine in half.

Happy result for the defendant? Hardly. Two months later the same young man kills himself and a 21-year-old friend in a single-vehicle crash involving speed and alcohol.

That judge should ponder whether that decision did the defendant a favor or whether an opportunity was missed. Legislators should wonder whether a stronger law would have gotten through to the young man. Maybe not, but we'll never know, will we?

gettingthere@baltsun.com

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Find Mike Dresser's column archive at baltimoresun.com/dresser

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