Editorial: Holding drivers accountable for accidents

Published Jun. 30, 2014

Starting today in Florida, drivers who flee an accident involving a death will face mandatory prison time, and any hit-and-run driver involved in an accident with serious injuries will be committing a second-degree felony. Pushed by grass roots activists, this commonsense law reinforces the social contract that the well-being of crash victims trumps a driver's potential self-interest. Law enforcement officials should widely promote their new tool and let motorists know that driving away after an accident is a gamble they no longer can afford to take.

Florida's lax laws on hit-and-run incidents have created an environment where drivers involved in car crashes often step on the gas rather than wait for law enforcement. One devastating incident after another bears witness to the disturbing trend. Just last week, St. Petersburg police said Marquice Anderson fled after driving the wrong way down a street and smashing into a car, killing three young mothers. Anderson stayed on the run for several days before turning himself in Monday.

In 2012, about 17,000 people were injured in hit-and-run crashes in Florida, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Of that total, 166 died. Too often, perpetrators don't see much downside to fleeing, particularly if they have been drinking. The new law, the Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act, was named for just such a case. Cohen, a 36-year-old father, was riding his bicycle in Miami in 2012 when he was struck by a car. The hit-and-run driver turned himself in 18 hours later but ultimately received a sentence of less than two years — less than he might have faced had police had been able to pursue evidence toward a DUI manslaughter charge.

The new law requires drivers involved in a crash with serious injuries or death to remain at the accident scene. Failure to do so results in felony charges and, in the case of a death, a mandatory minimum sentence of four years in prison. Separately, people who flee while driving under the influence also face a four-year mandatory minimum sentence, double the old punishment. All convicted hit-and-run drivers will have their licenses revoked for at least three years.

No one should hit someone and drive away. Stopping could provide the chance to assist the injured or call for help. And it shouldn't take a law to promote common decency. But rapid and regular enforcement of this new law reinforces that with the privilege of driving also comes the responsibility to stay at the scene. Always.