Amarillo, TX - Leaving the scene of an accident will now be as serious a crime as intoxication manslaughter in the state of Texas.
So far this year, eighteen people have died in car wrecks in Amarillo -and two of those wrecks involved a driver leaving the scene. Now a new state law will increase the penalties for doing so in an effort to keep drivers on scene and victims alive.
Under current state law, failure to stop and render aid is a third degree felony, which carries a much lighter punishment than intoxication manslaughter, which is a second degree felony.
But starting September 1st, both crimes will carry the same punitive weight.
"Before, when the penalty was less for leaving the scene, then there was like an incentive to leave if you were drunk," says Amarillo Police Sergeant Brent Barbee. "And now, the penalty would be the same as if you'd been arrested for the intoxication manslaughter to start with."
If a driver leaves the scene of an accident, emergency responders won't be alerted as quickly - or at all, in some cases. that means any injuries on scene would be more likely to become worse or even lead to death.
Senator Kirk Watson, the bill's author, gave me this statement earlier today:
"Senate Bill 275 increases penalties on those who flee the scene of fatal hit-and-run accidents to match the penalty for intoxication manslaughter. I hope this bill will change the calculus for drivers who make a big mistake. It will remove a potential legal incentive to flee the scene of a crime. More than that, I hope it will encourage them to do the right thing: stay at the scene, call for help, and try to ensure that the consequences of their actions are less terrible than they'd be otherwise. We ought to make sure that our laws are as consistent as possible -- it makes no sense that potentially drunk drivers who flee the scenes of fatal accidents face less punishment than those who don't. But more than that, we want to save lives and create incentives for saving lives. Senate Bill 275 does both."
Critics of the new legislation say the decision to flee an accident is motivated more by panic than by logic, so a new law wouldn't have any effect. But local law enforcement hopes the primary benefit is public awareness of the dangers of drunk driving.
"I think it's going to be an individual person-type case," says Sgt. Barbee. "At some point, a lot of the laws that get passed may not specifically have an effect on every single offense or any offense; however, I think there's a net effect of educational value."