By CATHERINE SHEFFO, Capital Gazette
After a rash of high-profile bicycle accidents, Maryland's General Assembly might consider strengthening laws that allow judges to punish careless drivers.
Last month saw the sentencing of a Calvert County driver who hit and killed bicyclist Patricia Cunningham, of Annapolis, while she was riding on Riva Road last year. Cunningham was an assistant track and cross-country coach at Annapolis High School.
A grand jury had charged the driver with four traffic violations. A judge found her guilty of three of them and imposed the maximum penalty: a $1,500 fine, as well as points on her license.
This angered some in the community. Prosecutors and bicycle organizations hope the Cunningham case will spark a debate about Maryland's laws on the rules of the road and the severity of charges that can be brought against reckless drivers.
"We're open to any changes in the law that give individuals the tools for justice," said House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch, D-Annapolis. "If the state's attorneys have any suggestions, we're willing to listen to them."
At the center of the debate is a 2011 Maryland law. The measure aims to establish a middle ground between the longer prison sentences associated with drunken driving and excessive speeding and the fines for minor traffic violations, such as running a red light.
The law uses the term "negligence" to describe the actions of a driver who is careless or not paying attention. Minor negligence is a traffic violation punishable by only a fine. Criminal negligence — legally, a "gross deviation" from careful driving — can carry a sentence of up to three years in prison.
Anne Arundel County Deputy State's Attorney William Roessler said that while the new law is a step in the right direction, juries and judges struggle to determine what should be considered criminal negligence.
Roessler, the prosecutor in the Cunningham case, said the law's wording is too similar to the laws on drunken driving for it to be effective. "It's so close that grand juries and judges are going to hold it to a very similar standard," he said.
"There may very well be a small category of cases, but it's not going to work very much. I haven't seen it yet."
Grand juries decide on how defendants are charged, so the way a law works depends on the way a grand jury interprets it, Roessler said.
In this case, the grand jury decided that defendant Whitney Decesaris' actions didn't amount to criminal negligence. She was charged with traffic violations instead, leading to fines instead of potential jail time.
"The loss from a human standpoint compared to $1,500 … it just seems grossly out of proportion," said Jon Korin of BikeAAA, an area bicycle advocacy group.
Roessler said prosecutors asked lawmakers to amend the law's wording to better reflect what they wanted it to accomplish. He said delegates were confident the law would work as intended.
Some delegates, however, said the problem is harder to fix than it seems.
"When something bad happens, people want to propose a law, but (Decesaris) didn't obey the current law," said Del. Herb McMillan, R-Annapolis.
McMillan said changing the law won't force people to follow the rules of the road that keep cyclists safe — namely, allowing 3 feet when passing at appropriate speeds.
"I don't really know what to think, aside from this was a tragic accident," he said. "I'm not sure a law new could have fixed it."
Busch said this is the first he has heard of attorneys having problems with the law, and lawmakers will consider working with prosecutors to make it more effective.
Meanwhile, bicycle advocates said harsher penalties for careless drivers are the key to reducing injuries and deaths.
"Enforcement is important," Korin said. "You can do education, but enforcement is a very, very critical element of changing behavior."
He expects the state level of BikeAAA to discuss legislative changes it may take to the legislature.
"It's a conversation that needs to be had so that proper charges can be applied."