When a truck driver's improperly loaded rig slammed into a footbridge over the Baltimore Beltway two years ago, causing it to collapse and kill a motorist, state law provided no option for criminal charges.
Now state transportation officials are pushing for a law that would hold truck drivers and their companies legally responsible if their loads recklessly endanger others.
A bill proposed by the Department of Transportation would establish substantial penalties and fines for commercial truckers who are involved in accidents that cause serious injury or death, if the drivers or owners are found to have committed serious safety violations.
"We lack a tool to go after the very small number of bad eggs who are not following some of the most basic safety guidelines," said Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari. "We're not trying to penalize the industry, but we want to have a way to provide enforcement and penalties for the most severe cases."
On June 8, 1999, truck driver Paul C. McIntosh, 23, of Ottawa, Canada, had loaded an excavator onto his rig before heading onto the Beltway. His load was nearly 3 feet taller than permitted by law.
As he passed under the unused Maiden Choice footbridge in Arbutus, the excavator slammed into the bridge, which collapsed and fell onto three cars. Robert N. Taylor of Northwest Baltimore, who was driving one of the cars, was killed and his passenger seriously injured. The drivers of the other cars were also injured.
Current law allows commercial drivers to be charged criminally only if they were driving erratically, speeding or under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of an accident. Prosecutors had no such evidence against McIntosh. They issued four traffic citations, totaling $880 in fines. The trucking firm, Ontario-based T.T.K. Transport, later agreed to a $2.6 million settlement with the victims.
Concerns grew in May after another fatal accident. In that incident, a poorly secured trailer on a landscaper's truck came loose and crashed into a school bus in Montgomery County, killing the driver and seriously injuring three children.
The proposed law would allow fines of up to $5,000 and a maximum of five years in prison for negligent drivers. Companies could face penalties as high as $50,000.
Baltimore County Deputy State's Attorney Howard B. Merker, who handled the McIntosh case, called the proposal "kind of harsh."
"Whether someone should go to jail because the height of a truck was beyond the limits of their permit, I really don't know," Merker said. "If it's not an intentional criminal act and you really want to hurt somebody, take away their commercial driver's license and make the company pay a heavy fine."