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Flawed Florida Hit and Run Laws Lead to More DUI Drivers Fleeing the Scene of an Accident

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, 168 people were killed in hit and run accidents in 2012. Current Florida law imposes a minimum prison sentence of four years for individuals who flee the scene of an accident in which a person was killed. Drivers also face license revocation of up to three years for fleeing the scene of an accident. Yet, the law places far stricter penalties on individuals who drive while under the influence of alcohol. If a person is found to be under the influence of alcohol and kills a person while driving, the maximum sentence in Florida, according to Mother Against Drunk Driving, is 15 years.

This creates a frightening scenario where drunk drivers may actually have an incentive to flee the scene of an accident in which an individual has been killed. According to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, there were 697 driving fatalities due to drinking and driving in Florida in 2012. These numbers do not necessarily account for the numbers of victims who died as a result of a drunk driver’s decision to flee the scene of an accident.

Earlier last year, the Sun Sentinel’s Editorial Board wrote an article criticizing the current laws. The Sun Sentinel explains: “It’s unacceptable that state law actually provides an incentive for drunk drivers to flee an accident, especially when injury or death is involved. For if drivers sober up before turning themselves in, they face less jail time than those convicted of DUI manslaughter.”

Florida’s lax enforcement of hit and run crimes hit national news in November when the New York Times reported that Tallahassee police officers let Florida State University’s starting quarterback off the hook for fleeing the scene of an accident. The team was celebrating a victory when the accident took place. The quarterback chose not to remain on the scene. The New York Times found that despite the fact that the quarterback had a suspended license, the police only decided to issue the quarterback two traffic tickets rather than charge him for the criminal violation.

Lawmakers have been pushing for tougher laws that would punish individuals more harshly for leaving the scene of an accident. Senator Miguel Diaz de la Portilla has been pushing for a crime bill that would increase minimum hit and run sentences from 4 to 10 years. While the 10 year sentencing would still not be equal to the potential 15 year-long sentence for DUI manslaughter in Florida, it would reduce the incentive for drunk drivers to run away in the event of an accident.

Changes to the law could potentially save many lives. In many fatal collisions, the best person to help is the person responsible for the accident. According to the Sun Sentinel, in Ft. Lauderdale (Broward County), a hit and run fatality takes place every week.

Lawmakers hope that if the law is changed, individuals will be more likely to stick around and render aid. For injured victims, this could mean the difference between an ambulance’s arrival in five minutes as opposed to an ambulance’s arrival after the victim has died. Many hit and run victims are found hours after an accident, long after a victim has lost the crucial window of opportunity to receive critical help.