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Editorial - Flight gets more costly

July 14, 1997

A new law that makes drivers who flee police subject to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail got its first workout this past Friday when a Gerrardstown man was arrested after a chase on U.S. 11, 10 minutes after the law took effect. This law is a good first step toward stamping out this potentially fatal behavior.

Joseph Frederick Hess, 34, will face more than a year in jail, because he was allegedly under the influence of alcohol and because his car struck a utility pole. Under the new law, fleeing police while under the influence of alcohol hikes the possible jail time to five years, and causing property damage during a chase raises the possible fine to $3,000.

The law was sponsored by Del. Larry Faircloth, R-Berkeley County, in reaction to the death of Amanda Smailes, a 21-year-old Shepherd College student. Smailes was killed by a suspected drunken driver trying to outrun police.

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Since then, some area police departments have obtained "Stop Sticks," which are devices which contained valved spikes. Thrown in front of a fleeing car, they slowly deflate its tires, avoiding a blowout that might cause a crash.

But to make such devices effective, every department in the region needs to have them, or something similar, and work out a plan to coordinate their use. It's important that departments in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia be involved, because the state borders are so close that a fleeing driver could be in another state in 10 minutes or less. This isn't a revolutionary proposal, but it's an idea that won't get beyond the talking stage unless elected officials get involved.

In West Virginia, officials can also help by educating their constituents about this new law and the fact that seldom, if ever, does anyone escape from police in a chase situation. They should also know that if they kill someone accidentally during such a chase, another provision of the law kicks in - a 15-year jail term. Just thinking about that ought to inspire those tempted to flee to hit the brakes instead of the gas.

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