Pennsylvania motorists who drive away from a fatal car accident without stopping to render aid will soon face stiffer penalties under a law that takes effect Sept. 4. The current maximum prison sentence of seven years will be raised to 10 years under the new law, which was inspired by a bicyclist who lost his life in a hit-and-run crash in 2005.

The law, introduced by a state representative from the borough of Indiana, upgrades the crime of leaving the scene of a fatal accident from a third-degree felony to second degree. The hope is that drivers involved in serious accidents will be more compelled to stay at a crash scene.

Some of the deadliest accidents on Pennsylvania’s roads involve bicyclists who are hit by cars. Last year saw 11 deaths and 1,312 injuries from cars hitting bikes. That’s equal to 1 percent of all fatal and injury accidents in the state. When a driver flees the scene after a crash — whether it’s with a bicycle, pedestrian or another motorized vehicle — no one benefits. Those who are critically injured are put at higher risk of death when they don’t get immediate medical help, and drivers who try to elude charges are only hit with more when they’re ultimately discovered.

A driver involved in a fatal accident typically falls into one of two sentencing categories. One of these, carelessness, might result from an accident caused by talking on a cellphone or a similar distraction. Carelessness carries a mandatory fine of $500. The second category is gross negligence, a third-degree felony that might come from excessive speeding. The penalties for gross negligence are much higher; those convicted are eligible for up to seven years in prison. A driver who fails to stop after a crash under either category will see much more time behind bars.

One thing that won’t change under the new law is the need for surviving family members to pursue their own wrongful-death lawsuit if they wish to receive compensation for their loss, because civil lawsuits aren’t affected by criminal sentencing changes. But if the threat of a higher criminal penalty is enough to deter someone from driving away, there’s at least a chance that a victim will get live-saving help.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Stiffer penalties ahead for fatal Pennsylvania hit-and-run accidents,” Clara Ritger, Aug. 13, 2012

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