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Aggressors on the road

July 07, 2006|by PEPPER BALLARD

WASHINGTON COUNTY

Drivers who tailgate, weave in and out of traffic, speed or pass on the right only are considered "aggressive," under Maryland law, if they commit three such violations in one fell swoop - and in view of police.

Between Maryland State Police, the Washington County Sheriff's Department and the Hagerstown Police Department, only 22 aggressive driving citations were issued on roads and highways in Washington County between Jan. 1, 2005, and June 2006, officials with those departments said.

Hagerstown had nine, followed by the Sheriff's Department with eight and Maryland State Police with five.

"At first blush, nine tickets looks like it's not an issue in the city," Hagerstown Police Department Capt. Jack Moulton said. However, officers wrote citations for 7,303 violations in that same period for violations that are components of aggressive driving, he said.

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Aggressive driving became a five-point Motor Vehicle Administration violation in 2001. The offense can result in a fine of up to $500, but no jail time, according to the Maryland General Assembly's Web site.

Moulton said that to cite a driver for aggressive driving, an officer must witness three out of seven possible violations that make up the citation - running traffic lights with "steady indication," such as a steady red light; overtaking and passing vehicles; passing on the right; improperly driving on laned roadways, such as failing to stay within a lane or driving on the shoulder, either unsafely or too fast; following too closely; failing to yield right of way; and speeding.

"When you load those things up three at a time, you're vastly multiplying the danger of an accident occurring," Moulton said. He said many aggressive driving citations stem from accidents.

Aggressive drivers rarely continue their erratic driving when they see a marked police cruiser, making it difficult for police to catch them in the act, Maryland State Police Lt. Gregory Johnston said.

"It's difficult," Johnston said. "They see you, and then they see their aggressive acts."

Officers in unmarked vehicles sometimes try to catch aggressive drivers, but it's not a common practice. It often requires two troopers on the highway to coordinate a traffic stop - one to watch the driver and one to stop the driver, Johnston said.

Witnesses rarely call police to report an aggressive driver, then offer to testify in court about what they saw, Johnston said.

Sheriff's Department Major Randy Wilkinson said motorists using cell phones have helped deputies find more aggressive drivers on the roads. But often, by the time deputies can respond, they might only see one violation committed, he said.

"There are a lot of other citations that are written, prompted from that initial call," Wilkinson said.

Because prosecutors are not required to be present in court for an offense that does not carry jail time, the Washington County Office of the State's Attorney does not usually prosecute aggressive drivers unless they appeal their case from the lower court, State's Attorney Charles P. Strong Jr. said.

"If it's not combined with a jailable offense, it's handled without an attorney," he said.

Maryland Del. Christopher B. Shank said he supported a bill that made the aggressive driving citation law. At the time, he said, some members of the delegation were concerned that "by accident," a driver could commit three qualifying offenses all at once.

"There were a lot of concerns that we were stringing together these unrelated crimes, these motor vehicle crimes," Shank said.

Shank said it was a tough bill to pass.

He said he has had a bill in the works that would create a reckless endangerment charge in connection with a motor vehicle offense, but has not had success passing it. The proposed charge would carry a maximum five-year prison term, the same maximum penalty for the current reckless endangerment charge, which usually is applied in cases where, for example, a person shoots a gun into a crowded room, Shank said.

"We have in the state very lenient vehicle laws," he said.

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