ANNAPOLIS – Fleeing a serious accident would become a felony under a bill unanimously approved by the Maryland House of Delegates Thursday.
The offense is now a misdemeanor, but a rising number of serious and fatal hit-and-run incidents that brought minor punishments for offenders sparked the legislation, supporters said.
The Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services reported 25 people were imprisoned in 2001 for fleeing such accidents. The average length of incarceration for offenders was slightly less than 12 months.
“Today the House of Delegates said that we want a safer and more civil society on our streets and highways,” said Delegate William Bronrott, D- Montgomery, one of the bill’s chief sponsors.
The bill replaces similar legislation rejected by a Senate committee last year because it did not distinguish between punishments for hit-and-run offenders who inflicted minor injuries versus those who caused more serious, “life-threatening” injuries, Bronrott said.
Lawmakers wanted to ensure drivers who inflict minor injuries would continue to face only misdemeanor charges.
This year’s bill establishes three levels of offenses for hit-and-run drivers, including maintaining state law for those who cause only minor injuries — a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $3,000 or one year in jail.
A new provision would charge hit-and-run drivers who inflict “serious bodily injury” with a felony, punishable by a $5,000 fine or up to five years in jail.
Drivers who flee a fatal accident could be fined up to $10,000 or sentenced to 10 years in jail.
“It will send a very strong signal across our entire state that we will not tolerate this cowardly act of fleeing this type of violent crash,” Bronrott said.
The bill will likely be assigned to a Senate committee next week, and prospects are good it will go before the Senate floor soon after.
An identical Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Christopher Van Hollen Jr., D- Montgomery, was approved Tuesday, 10-1, by the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee and will likely reach the Senate floor next week. Chairman Walter Baker, D-Cecil, was the lone vote against the measure.
Van Hollen agreed the state needed to take action on the issue after the rising number of incidents last year.
“People have been much more sensitive to this issue since last year,” Van Hollen said. “We cannot tolerate that kind of behavior.”
The parents of Rajiv Vaidya, who died three days after a car veered onto the median where he was waiting to cross East West Highway in Silver Spring in December 2000, testified on behalf of the bill in the House. The incident was one of several that encouraged lawmakers to take action.
The driver who hit Vaidya stopped only to pick up some parts from his car. He was released from jail Jan. 1 after serving just seven months of his 18-month sentence for misdemeanor flight from an accident scene.
Bronrott called the House’s unanimous vote “great news,” but said he will remain cautiously optimistic about the bill’s prospects in the Senate.
“We are moving along strongly,” Bronrott said. “I’m hopeful, but I’m not taking anything for granted.”
In other action on the House floor Thursday, lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a bill to outlaw open containers of alcohol in cars. The civil offense could bring a $25 fine for the driver, although Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and chief sponsors had initially asked for a $500 punishment.
Lawmakers changed the fine to $25 after opponents argued the bill could unfairly punish responsible and designated drivers, as well as people who inadvertently pack partially filled bottles of wine or liquor in accessible areas of their vehicles.