Recent case reveals that PA laws may raise the risk of DUI hit-and-runs

Drivers in Washington, Pennsylvania, know that the state's laws mandate harsh penalties for negligence to deter drivers from making decisions that put others at risk. Many drivers also recognize that, besides causing a car accident in the first place, one of the worst thing drivers can do is flee the scene afterward. Unfortunately, a recent hit-and-run case called attention to the fact that current Pennsylvania laws and penalties may encourage intoxicated drivers to do just that.

Drivers face lower penalties for fleeing

The case involved a driver who was accused of running over a 5-year old boy, fatally injuring him and then fleeing the scene, according to the Times Leader. Prosecutors spoke to witnesses who reported the driver had been drinking at a house party that night. If the driver had been caught at the scene in a state of intoxication, he would have faced a minimum of three years imprisonment.

The minimum sentence for fleeing from fatal accidents, however, is just one year. In this case, authorities did not speak to the driver until two days after the accident, when there was no longer direct evidence of his intoxication. In court, the driver pled guilty to accidents involving death and received a shorter sentence than he might have if convicted of vehicular homicide while driving under the influence.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in 2012, Pennsylvania lawmakers increased the maximum penalty for fleeing the scene of a fatal accident to 10 years. For intoxicated drivers who commit the same crime, the penalty is also 10 years. However, critics worry that the difference in minimum penalties is essentially a loophole that may encourage drunk drivers to flee the scene rather than taking responsibility for their actions.

When drivers flee after a hit-and-run, it may cost the lives of victims who could have been saved if they had received immediate medical attention. The fact that Pennsylvania's laws currently do not adequately discourage drivers from fleeing is especially troubling considering that hit-and-run accidents may be rising across the country.

An alarming accident trend

Hit-and-run accidents increased significantly from 2009 to 2011, the most recent years for which data was available, according to USA Today. Some troubling statistics:

  • Hit-and-run deaths increased 13.7 percent even as overall traffic deaths decreased.
  • Alcohol is often a factor in hit-and-run accidents.
  • Pedestrians are the victims in more than half of these accidents.
  • Hit-and-runs are responsible for about one-fifth of pedestrian fatalities.

According to the same source, states such as Arizona and Colorado have increased penalties for fleeing the scene of an accident. Texas, which used to have laws structured similarly to those in Pennsylvania, raised the penalty for fleeing the scene without rendering aid to a maximum sentence of 20 years, comparable to the sentence for vehicular manslaughter. Similar changes in Pennsylvania could help reduce hit-and-run accidents and improve the likelihood of accident victims surviving.

Sadly, legal sanctions will not prevent every driver from making reckless decisions, and they cannot prevent every accident from occurring in the first place. Anyone who has been hurt in an accident caused by another driver's careless decisions should speak with an attorney about seeking compensation.