Thursday, August 4, 2005

Editorial: How could it happen?

Published in the Current

SCARBOROUGH (Aug 4, 2005): If the state is serious about driver safety – and they say they are, even recently stepping up police patrols on busy stretches of highways – it’s time for a registry of dangerous drivers, similar to the one we have for sex offenders.

A bad driver can pose a greater risk to more people in a single day than some sex offenders may in their whole lives. It’s time we knew who the worst drivers are, so we can protect ourselves and each other.

It’s shocking and tragic enough that Tina Turcotte of Scarborough was killed in a car crash last week. Our sympathies go out to her family and friends, who are no doubt reeling in shock. We hope they are also feeling love and support from those around them.

But what’s worse is that the driver of the truck has an extended history of traffic violations, including more than 42 convictions, has had his driver’s license suspended 19 times, and has been involved in five crashes, two of which have killed another driver.

Deputy Secretary of State Doug Dunbar said there are even more convictions that are not shown in state records, because of complications of the state’s computer system.

Scott Hewitt of Caribou, who was bailed out of jail just hours after the crash, might even be back on the road. The state has no way to know, and no way to prevent him from driving again.

And when he was driving Friday, Hewitt’s license was again under suspension, this time for failure to pay a court-imposed fine.

His state driving record starts when he was 19, showing Hewitt has had an average of more than three convictions every year.

Several of those convictions are for serious violations, including two for operating after suspension and one for operating after his license was revoked because he had so many driving-related convictions.

Among his 16 speeding convictions are four for driving double the posted speed limit – 50 mph in a 25 mph zone, 59 mph in a 30 mph zone, 53 mph in a 25 mph zone and 29 mph in a 15 mph zone. He also was convicted for breaking commercial trucking rules 10 times.

That’s just Hewitt. What’s even more scary is that there are others we don't know about. The state needs a way to get drivers them off the road, permanently.

Right now, there’s no way a person’s driver’s license can be permanently revoked. Even a person convicted of driving drunk and causing an accident that kills a person can appeal a revocation after 10 years.

It’s true that there is no practical way to monitor a person to make sure that they are never actually behind the wheel of a car. And such a person can still drive, and can get away with it.

There are parallels here with sex offenders, who also cannot practically be physically monitored to keep them away from children or other potential victims. They must be allowed to go about their lives after serving their sentences.

But they potentially pose a danger to the general public, and enough convicted sex offenders have committed subsequent offenses to generate public outcry.

Gov. John Baldacci has asked for a review to see what the state can do better.

It’s time for Maine to have a dangerous driver registry. After some number of convictions for traffic infractions – say six over three years – or even just one of a very serious nature, like doubling the speed limit, a person should be placed in a public registry for a period of time.

Residents in their communities should be notified. The dangerous drivers should have to register with their local police, and should know that their neighbors are watching them closely.

While that might not make the dangerous drivers reform, it would help neighbors in their communities to know what’s going on, and perhaps encourage the neighbors to call police when the offender backs out of the driveway.

Roads are public spaces, and when dangerous people are in control of heavy machines, we are all at risk.

Jeff Inglis, editor