Bicycle activists push tougher negligence law
With the opening of the General Assembly session today, Maryland's bicycling advocates are renewing their effort to pass legislation addressing a gap in the law between simple negligent driving and the criminal offense of negligent manslaughter by automobile.
Concerned that drivers in fatal crashes are getting off too easily under the negligent driving statute -- a ticket-able offense that can be resolved without trial by paying a fine -- the advocates are trying to create an intermediate charge of "manslaughter by motor vehicle -- criminal negligence."
That charge, which would apply when a sober driver kills someone through gross negligence not related to intoxication, would be a serious misdemeanor carrying a potential term of three years in prison and a $5,000 fine.
The current criminal manslaughter by motor vehicle charge carries a potential 10-year, $5,000 penalty. In practice, it is very difficult for prosecutors to reach the level of proof necessary to win a conviction on that charge.
Bicyclists are especially sensitive on that point after a series of crashes in which bike riders have been killed through driver error and the motorist faced no charge more serious than negligent driving. Bike Maryland is leading the charge to change the law.
There's a lot of merit to the idea of creating an enhanced version of negligent driving to cover cases that are grossly negligent but not willful. But the proposal being advanced by the advocates carries the flaw of many such laws: It punishes the result and not the conduct. It would make more sense to create a misdemeanor charge of "grossly negligent driving contributing to a crash" that could be applied whether or not a victim died. One year should suffice as a penalty; three strikes me as overkill unless there was actual intent to cause harm.
For reasons of fairness, and despite the fact such instances are uncommon, the statute should be applied to bicyclists whose gross negligence contributes to a crash. There have been cases in the United States where misbehaving bicyclists have killed or seriously injured pedestrians. There's no reason the charge shouldn't apply in those cases as well. Supporting such an amendment would be a show of good faith on the part of advocates showing that they too recognize that Maryland has a problem with a minority if bicyclists who are as reckless as any driver.