Must People Die For Existing Laws To Be Reevaluated?

Woman And Man Crossing The Street With A Bicycle

Recently, I wrote about the senseless death of two cyclists who were on an annual group ride in New Hampshire. These cyclists were killed when an unlicensed driver took her eyes off the road, crossed into the opposing traffic lane and plowed into a group of cyclists. The driver, nineteen-year-old Darriean Hess, was charged with two counts of negligent homicide for causing this crash.

Hess had been stopped for speeding and cited for driving without a license only eight hours before she killed the two cyclists. Despite her excessive speed — according to news reports it was nearly double the speed limit — the officer who stopped her did not arrest her.

One would think that he would have been able to arrest a driver under these circumstances. Perhaps he could have.

Commenters on New England based news sites have stated theories about why the officer did not arrest her when he stopped her for speeding. One commenter thought that an officer could arrest a driver who was traveling twice the speed limit under the reckless driving laws. This might be true. However, the speed recorded on the ticket was just below the number which would put the driver in the reckless category.

As with all comment section discussions, some commenters thought the officer had deliberately lowered the speed she was traveling to avoid arresting her, while others thought he recorded an accurate speed and could not arrest her. Regardless of which version of events is accurate, the officer did not arrest her. If he had, two cyclists would be alive today.

A couple of days after I wrote my post on this story, an update was published on Boston.com about the negligent driver. Apparently, despite her family’s claims that they could not raise the $50,000 dollars which had been set for her bail, they coughed up the money and she was released from jail.

Now that she’s out, New Hampshire legislators are considering changes to the penalties for driving without a license. “Hampton Rep. Renny Cushing has filed a bill that would make any moving violation by an unlicensed driver an automatic misdemeanor, which could allow the driver to be arrested.”

Why did it take two deaths at the hands of an unlicensed driver for the legislators to consider breaking the law while driving without a license as something worth arresting someone for? I would have thought that such a law would already exist. Instead, it is being considered as an afterthought, now that two innocent road users are dead.

Traffic laws are some of the muddiest laws we have in America. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that traffic laws related to injuring other people are among the muddiest laws.

The laws about how to maneuver a car are fairly straightforward. Green means go, red means stop, and signal before turning are a few of the more obvious laws.

Most traffic laws are really just rules. If a driver breaks the rules, and is caught, he or she is penalized in the form of a ticket. But when that same driver breaks unwritten rules such as keeping their eyes on the road, and kills someone, no laws seem to apply.

Police and prosecutors try to bend existing laws to make them fit crimes committed with motor vehicles. Most of the time they fail. Failure results because the laws do not fit the situation. So, even if serious injury or death arises from negligent actions while driving a car, the law has no clear cut remedies.

We would all be better off if the New Hampshire legislature, and the governing bodies of other states, passed laws toughening the penalties for improperly operating a motor vehicle. As has been discussed on this blog before, 99 percent of the time, these incidents — where a car strikes a bicycle — are not an accident. They are the result of negligent behavior. And laws should exist to penalize negligent behavior on the part of motor vehicle operators. This should not be a gray area.

Let’s hope no one else has to die before lawmakers realize that killing someone by any means is still killing someone. Unless an unexpected mechanical failure caused a car to veer out of control, its course could only have been due to the actions of the driver. Those actions and their consequences should serve as the basis for comprehensive laws designed to hold drivers accountable for injuries caused by negligent driving. Further, with more streets being used by cyclists and pedestrians, we can’t wait until we rack up numerous deaths before we start enacting appropriate and just motor vehicle laws.

[Note: Please leave comments on the new blog.]

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