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At what point does safety trump the right to drive?

The Baltimore Sun: At what point does safety trump the right to drive?

By Michael Dresser | michael.dresser@baltsun.com
November 9, 2009

There are people who simply should not be permitted to own or operate motor vehicles.

Thomas Meighan Jr. is one of them. Long before the Oct. 16 incident in which he faces charges related to the hit-and-run death of Johns Hopkins student Miriam Frankl, he had demonstrated that he was a menace to others any time he operated a vehicle.

At the time of that crash, Meighan had nine convictions on his record for driving while intoxicated or impaired. Yet he still was listed as the owner of the F-250 truck that police believe mowed down the 20-year-old Frankl. (Meighan has denied being the driver that day and has not been charged in her death.)

Is there anyone outside the Maryland General Assembly who believes Meighan should have been permitted to own anything more powerful than a moped?

As a society, we are ultra-protective of the right to own property. And we hate to impose any penalties that interfere with someone’s ability to make a living after they’ve served jail time. Car ownership has been elevated to a virtual constitutional right. Meighan lost his license many times and always got it back.

But surely there’s a limit somewhere. Surely there’s a point where we’ve had enough, where someone has so thoroughly demonstrated an unfitness to operate a vehicle that society intervenes and says you shall not drive again. Ever.

Where comes the point that we tell an offender we don’t care if he has a hard time getting the kind of job he or she prefers?

After how many convictions do we tell a dangerous driver to move closer to a bus route?

Where should that limit be? After the third DUI? After the fifth? After somebody gets killed?

Right now we draw the line in none of those places.

Even if you commit manslaughter by motor vehicle after dozens of previous offenses, you can regain your license within a year or two of getting out of jail. You can buy a car and register it as soon as you can scrape up the cash.

Lifetime revocation of driving privileges would be an appropriate penalty in some cases, but it’s not enough. The kind of person who repeatedly drives drunk is not the type to worry what’s in his or her wallet.

Only by taking away an offender’s car and forbidding registration of a replacement do you stand even a small chance of keeping that person off the road.

To put some teeth in the prohibition, the state could make abstention from driving or vehicle ownership a condition of probation for serious, repeated driving offenses.

Anyone object to probation for life for repeat drunken drivers and highway killers after they get out of the slammer?

The last time Meighan went before a Maryland judge for sentencing was in 2005 in Frederick County. It was his eighth in-state conviction for drunken driving.

If you were that judge, and if the state had given you the authority to confiscate Meighan’s vehicle and forbid him to own or operate another one in Maryland for the rest of his days, would you have exercised that power?

I thought so. My readers have more sense than the General Assembly.

It’s way past time for lawmakers to give judges that hammer and tell them to use it. But let’s not wait for Conviction No. 8. Or for a young woman’s death.

Safety, not revenue
The Oct. 19 Getting There column took Prince George’s County to task for putting the operations of its speed camera program in the hands of the county Revenue Authority.

I stand by my criticism of the county for making a move that sends a message that speed cameras are all about revenue. It still strikes me as a bone-headed decision from a public relations standpoint. Speed camera critics jumped on it right away.

But Jim Keary, a county spokesman, pointed out some matters the column should have taken into consideration.

For one, the Revenue Authority, despite its name, is not a tax collection agency but the operator of the county’s parking facilities. Keary said the county’s rationale for putting the speed camera program under the Revenue Authority, which already administers parking fines, is that it built on an existing system and avoided creating a new bureaucracy within another department.

Keary also emphasized that the Police Department, along with the Revenue Authority, will have a leading role in decisions of where to deploy speed cameras. And he denied that generating revenue will be the leading consideration in running the program.

"We have looked at this as a safety issue from Day 1," he said.


Copyright © 2009, The Baltimore Sun