Why do dangerous drivers receive more protection from the law than their victims do?
By Bob Mionske
When a dangerous driver injures somebody, or takes another person’s life, we pretend that it’s somehow normal. We’re all so aware of our own driving mistakes that we do everything we can to avoid holding other drivers—even dangerous drivers—accountable when somebody dies. We call it “an accident.” We blame the victim. We worry about how the driver must have suffered. Our system of traffic justice is so broken that, for the victims of dangerous drivers, there is often no justice at all.
Instead, our legal system shields dangerous drivers from any real consequences. With the exception of DUI, motorists can get away with just about anything. Consider a few recent examples.
In January, a cyclist riding on Raccoon Mountain near Chattanooga, Tennessee was buzzed and then assaulted by a pair of teens in a pickup truck. The teens subsequently filed a false police report, claiming that the cyclist had assaulted them. At the same time, an Officer in the Sheriff’s Department threatened the cyclist with felony charges for violating an imaginary law, while the entire weight of the Marion County law enforcement establishment was simultaneously investigating the cyclist and urging him to drop the charges against the teens.
Eventually the truth came out. The cyclist was cleared and the teens were charged. Last week, the driver was sentenced to a whopping 16 hours of public service on charges of assault and violating Tennessee’s three-foot passing law. After he completes his sentence, he’s eligible to have his record wiped clean. And the Marion County law enforcement officer who used his badge to intimidate a crime victim with a false threat of felony charges? He gets off scot-free.
OK, that was just one case. Maybe they’re more serious about protecting human life in, say, Virginia.
Nope. Last week, the state legislature failed to pass a law that would have outlawed tailgating cyclists. So while it’s illegal to tailgate a driver in Virginia, you can still tailgate a cyclist with no consequences. (This disturbing video from Australia shows why tailgating cyclists is a bad idea. Fortunately, the cyclist came away with minor injuries.)
Virginia wasn’t the only state considering a bicycle-safety bill. In Arizona, a bill to ban texting while driving died in committee. The reason? Arizona legislators felt that there were already too many laws on the books. (But that didn’t stop them from passing a law giving businesses the right to discriminate against their customers on the basis of sexual orientation.)
Let’s try my home state of Wisconsin. Legislators there are considering a “vulnerable users” law that would make it a misdemeanor to kill or seriously injure a cyclist or pedestrian as a result of committing a traffic violation. The penalty would be a maximum $10,000 fine and a nine-month jail sentence, but backers say the real value of the law is that it would allow judges the leeway to impose sentences that reflect the human life that was lost—for example, by requiring dangerous drivers to speak publicly about driving safety. But apparently, a handful of state legislators think that is taking driving fatalities too seriously, and are blocking the proposed legislation for the fourth year in a row. If they succeed, dangerous drivers will continue to go unpunished.
That’s what happened last August when a driver near Seymour, Wisconsin, crossed the center line of the road to pass a pickup truck and horse trailer, and crashed head-on into cyclist Kevin Payette, killing him. What did this driver get for taking a life? A ticket for illegal passing. If he is convicted at his May 14 court appearance, he will be fined $326.50.
In Harrisville, Utah, a driver who ran a red light and killed 18-year-old Devereaux Hallet is charged with texting while driving and running a red light, both misdemeanors. Hallet’s parents have tried to get the prosecutor to charge the driver with vehicular homicide, but because Utah law protects dangerous drivers, the D.A.’s office believes that it can’t prove vehicular homicide. “To have to be re-victimized by the justice system is really discouraging,” Hallet’s stepmother said. “I’ve tried to ask as many questions as I can … but I’m not real sure why [the charges aren’t more severe]. I’m getting kind of stonewalled.”
Then there’s the horrific crash that occurred in Austin, Texas this month. Police attempted to stop a motorist suspected of DWI who then took off, fleeing through the streets of Austin. He nearly hit a police officer, sped the wrong way on a one-way downtown street, and crashed through a barricade, into a crowd of people attending the South by Southwest music festival. Two people were killed immediately, one died days later, and 22 more were injured. The driver then crashed into a taxi, and drove up over the curb and into a parking lot before crashing into a van. The driver attempted to flee on foot, but was overtaken by a pursuing officer and tasered. This time, the loss of life was taken seriously. The driver has been charged with at least two counts of capital murder and 23 counts of aggravated assault with a vehicle. If convicted, he could face the death penalty.
So how do we explain these extremes—almost no response to most victims of traffic violence, but a possible death sentence in one particular case? The short answer: It takes a crash that looks like something out of a Bruce Willis movie before our legal system will demand justice. But too often, dangerous drivers are mollycoddled, as in Marion County, Tennessee, or charged with petty violations that carry insulting penalties, as in Seymour, Wisconsin. The driving privilege is treated as if it is a sacred right, and even repeat offenders get a second chance—and many more chances after that.
It’s simply not good enough to say that’s how things are. We have to ask, “Why? Why don’t we have a range of penalties in our justice system—minimal penalties for minor offenses, more serious consequences when somebody is injured or killed, all the way up to very serious penalties when the driver’s behavior is extreme?
This isn’t rocket science. A century ago, society took driving and road fatalities very seriously. It was understood that automobiles were dangerous machinery, and that drivers had to be held to a standard of responsibility that reflected the damage they were capable of causing. That is why drivers were required to be licensed, and driving was considered a privilege. And it’s why drivers in countries like the Netherlands are held to higher standards today.
So why are we so lax in the US now? The sad reality is that most people would rather blame the victims of bad driving than accept that they are part of the problem. As a result, dangerous drivers receive more protection from the law than their victims do. Prosecutors say that their hands are tied in trying to bring appropriate charges. And police neglect to enforce existing laws (except when they are cracking down on the victims of traffic violence).
We can change that, if we want to. We just have to get our elected officials to care about the victims of bad driving. We got them to care 100 years ago, and we can do it again. But it will be up to us to lead the way.
Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
Connect with Bob at Bike Law and on Facebook!
This article, No Crime, No Punishment, was originally published on Bicycling on March 26, 2014.