Bill to punish fatally bad driving should pass with care

If sheer emotion and raw emotion were enough to make law, a bill making it tougher to get away with just a traffic ticket after killing someone on the road would be a done deal.

At a hearing last week before the House Judiciary Committee, family members who lost the most important people in their lives to the bad driving of others expressed sorrow, anger and frustration that a bill providing stiffer penalties for lethal negligence behind the wheel has been bottled up in that panel for many years.

Why, they demanded, is it never brought to a vote?

The reason, it appears, is that committee Chairman Joseph Vallario Jr. doesn't like the bill but recognizes its appeal to panel members.

This is not a case where Vallario is 100 percent wrong. It is a difficult issue, and one in which it would be easy for legislators to go overboard and craft a ham-handed law that punishes bad luck as much as bad behavior.

Nevertheless, proponents made a good case that a law is needed to bridge the gap between a simple speeding ticket and felony vehicular manslaughter. According to the testimony, Maryland is one of the most lenient states in how it deals with drivers who cause death on the roads. The bill the committee heard, House Bill 363, would bring it closer to the national consensus of how to treat lethally bad behavior on the roads.

Here's how it stands now: I'm cruising down the road in Maryland, chatting on my cell phone, going a little too fast, swerving from lane to lane and I blow through a red light and kill a bicyclist, a pedestrian or fellow driver. Chances are that when the investigation's done, I'll get a handful of traffic tickets. They'll likely amount to a few hundred dollars — maybe $1,000 if I've broken enough laws.

If I choose not to go to court, where I might come face to face with the victim's family, I can resolve those issues by putting a check in the mail. Yes, I could face higher insurance rates and there may be a civil lawsuit that could cost my insurer big bucks, but actual jail time is unlikely.

There is a statute under which a driver can be charged with the crime of vehicular manslaughter and face hard time. But the way the courts have applied it, the prosecutor has to show a wanton and willful disregard for human life — a tough standard to meet unless the driver is drunk or engaged in a road race at the time of the fatality.

Some legislators, backed by bicyclists' advocates and many survivors of crashes where someone else has died, believe there should be an intermediate charge that recognizes the gravity of taking someone else's life by bad driving.

They're right. The testimony I heard from people who have lived the nightmare of losing their spouses or children only to learn that the people at fault got off with nothing more than a fine was convincing.

Committee members would be wise to be cautious, however, and make sure the language clearly expresses an intent to punish bad behavior, not bad mistakes.

The bill sponsored by Democratic Del. Luiz R. S. Simmons of Montgomery County attempts to do that. It expressly states that mere negligence isn't enough to qualify for the misdemeanor of "criminally negligent manslaughter by vehicle or vessel." That's wise, because a potential sentence of three years and $5,000 isn't something to impose just to satisfy a visceral desire to even the score.

Simmons' bill sets the standard for the offense as "a substantial deviation from the standard of care that would be exercised by a reasonable person." According to the delegate, that language has been used in many other states to define an intermediate-level charge without abuse by prosecutors.

Maybe that's the case, but the language could be made clearer for the benefit on nonlawyers. Mostly, it would be better if it addressed intent.

It's a terrible thing to kill someone because of inattention or lack of driving skill, but it doesn't merit a jail term. That should be made crystal clear. People can daydream and lose track of speed; a parent can be distracted by the kids in the back seat. It doesn't make them bad people.

But if a driver kills someone while operating the vehicle in a way that intentionally or recklessly violates traffic laws, jail may be appropriate — especially if there's a pattern of previous violations. For instance, it's hard to accept that someone going 20 mph or more above the speed limit didn't know they were gambling with other people's lives. Red light runners and pedestrian crosswalk violators, whose violations often have more to do with narcissism than inadvertence, are two areas deserving strong consideration for the enhanced charge.

Lawmakers might want to write into the law a set of mitigating and aggravating factors to guide prosecutors' decisions for using a new statute. And they might want to ask whether three years in jail is overkill on a charge that doesn't require willful and wanton disregard.

The best result, ironically, might come if Vallario were to engage in the give-and-take and help craft a bill both he and the proponents can live with. He may be autocratic but he's also shrewd at forging compromises when he's disposed to do so.

One way or another, Marylanders deserve to see the battle over this bill end this year. It's a distraction from the real challenge: crafting laws that deter bad driving before someone gets killed.

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