ANNAPOLIS – State transportation officials Tuesday urged harsher penalties for trucking companies and their drivers who cause serious or fatal accidents by knowingly operating unsafe vehicles.
The bill, which passed the House 88-39 March 8, received a hostile reception from Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee members, who said such a law could put drivers’ jobs at risk and unfairly punish them when they may not know their vehicles are unsafe.
Penalties for such offenses are usually insignificant fines cheaper than the cost of repairs, said Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari.
Such lenient penalties can be an incentive for trucking companies to make a “business decision” to keep unsafe vehicles on the road and risk only minimal fines rather than invest in costly repairs, thereby endangering lives, Porcari said.
“The intent here is to tip the balance to where it’s easier (for commercial vehicle companies) to fix the truck rather than getting caught and having to pay the fine,” he said.
Under the bill, trucking companies and drivers could be fined up to $10,000 for causing an accident resulting in life-threatening injuries, while the penalty for causing a death could reach $25,000.
Existing penalties range from $500 for first-time offenders to up to $3,000 for repeat offenders.
But opponents argued the bill, which makes the offense criminal, places severe burdens on drivers without affording them job protection.
Drivers could lose their jobs by refusing to operate dangerous vehicles if their employers order them to do so. Such a scenario saddles a driver with too much accountability and with little authority to act responsibly, said Sen. Timothy R. Ferguson, R-Carroll.
“You want (a trucker) to save lives – save his job,” Ferguson told officials. Drivers with families to feed may have a particularly difficult time risking their jobs, he said. “It’s a two-way street.”
In addition, drivers may be unaware their trucks are not safe to operate, yet would still be accountable under the bill.
“You’re mixing apples and oranges,” said Sen. Leo H. Green, D-Prince George’s, committee vice chairman. “(Truckers) are not mechanics.”
Commercial vehicle companies have gotten away with paying as little as $500 for fatal accidents, Porcari said.
But Ferguson called the bill “dead,” and others said they would not support it unless amendments were adopted to absolve drivers of such strict accountability.
The committee did vote to approve higher-profile House bills that would make it a felony for drivers to flee the scene of a serious or fatal accident, and prohibit open containers of alcohol in passenger areas of vehicles, punishable by a $25 fine.
This was the committee’s second approval of such legislation, and both bills will likely pass the Senate later this week.