Tuesday, November 9, 2010

When the Punishment Doesn't Fit the Crime

Damien Newton over at Streetsblog LA beat me to this blog post (that's what happens when you only get to blog part time) about the recent spate of pedestrian fatalities in the valley. First there was high school student Conor Lynch, who was killed crossing Woodman Ave. Then there was Emely Aleman, killed crossing Laurel Canyon Boulevard. And the penalty for the drivers of the vehicles who killed these two? A misdemeanor, with a maximum one year sentence.

Does this strike anyone else as a little lenient?

To be clear, neither driver has been accused of anything beyond "merely" hitting a pedestrian--no DUIs, hit-and-runs, or otherwise driving recklessly. So, while a civil court may determine that a stiff fine is in order, local and state law limit the criminal charges that these drivers can face.

I understand the reasoning behind this (should a person be held liable for an unintentional injury?), but I can't say I completely agree with it. Because they are operating potentially deadly machines, I believe drivers are obligated to maintain an extra level of vigilance when they're behind the wheel. It's not enough to simply obey the applicable traffic laws; the basic rules of the road don't cover every possible scenario a driver might face. Bad things can happen even when no laws are broken, so drivers need to exercise constant caution, diligence, and respect for other road users. When they don't, they might deserve something more than just the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

For the record, I don't mean to say that pedestrians are never at fault. And, the fact that we've designed our roadways for vehicles and not people clearly contributes to this problem. But I do think that stricter criminal penalties are appropriate in some cases, and I believe the law should allow for them. Oregon, New York, and Delaware all have vulnerable users laws that give special protections to pedestrians and bicyclists, assigning harsher sentences to drivers who injure or kill these road users. Maybe it's time for California to adopt a vulnerable user law of its own.

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