TAR HEEL VIEW: Make driving into floodwater against the law

A North Carolina firefighter wants reckless drivers who bypass barricades on flooded streets to face criminal charges for endangering first responders.

Ben Gufford Jr., a member of the Contentnea Volunteer Fire Department in Wilson County, is lobbying state lawmakers to create penalties for removing or failing to heed roadblocks during public safety emergencies. He created an online petition on Change.org titled “Protect Our First Responders From Citizen Negligence.”

Gufford wrote that some water rescues performed after Hurricane Matthew pounded eastern North Carolina with torrential rain last Saturday and Sunday were caused by motorists who ignored the warnings and drove their cars headlong into danger.

“Firefighters and rescue personnel had to respond to multiple incidents and put their lives at risk due to drivers’ negligence,” the petition states. “Each incident put firefighters and rescue personnel at risk by causing them to go through floods with rapid-like conditions to pull drivers to safety. I know of this because I am a volunteer firefighter and witnessed the incidents firsthand.”

The petition has a goal of 200 signatures and is scheduled for delivery to Gov. Pat McCrory; Sens. Buck Newton, Ronald J. Rabin, Wesley Meredith, Bill Rabon, Brent Jackson and Louis Pate; and Reps. Susan Martin, John R. Bell, Jimmy Dixon, Gregory Murphy, Chris Millis and James Langdon.

Gufford suggests reckless driving that leads to a water rescue should be a felony offense — and that the offending motorist be billed for the rescue costs. Disregarding a recognizable barricade and entering an emergency scene would otherwise be a misdemeanor charge with a fine of up to $1,000.

“There have been multiple deaths throughout eastern North Carolina due to drivers proceeding around traffic signs and cones and going through flooded waters only to be swept away and drown,” Gufford wrote on the Change.org petition page. “We as a state need to create and promote…new legislation as a preventative measure so that in the future, citizens might think twice about creating unnecessary emergencies.”

While we do not endorse any bill before it is drafted — the devil’s often in the details, after all — we see the need for legislative intervention to deter reckless driving during natural disasters and protect the lives of both motorists and first responders.

We’ve advocated against laws that limit individual freedom and give government parental powers over adult Americans, including declarations of emergency curfews. With personal freedom, however, comes personal responsibility. Drivers who knowingly place themselves and others at risk of death or serious injury and monopolize public safety resources should be held accountable.

To be sure, there are caveats. Closed roads must be clearly marked in order for the application of such a law to pass muster. We’d recommend warning signs announcing emergency closures, listing the statutory authority and stating the penalties for entry.

The standard for a personal responsibility law must be wanton recklessness, not mere negligence, thoughtlessness or human error. Many house fires are caused by unattended cooking and unmonitored space heaters. Punishing victims of these preventable tragedies would be a bridge too far. You can’t legislate common sense.

We’d also prefer to see minimum and maximum fines established in the bill rather than putting violators on the hook for the full cost of a water rescue. While there’s some populist wisdom to that provision, reckless drivers are presumably taxpayers, too. We all pitch in for public safety services.

Lawmakers should take this issue seriously and produce a carefully crafted bill that establishes penalties for reckless endangerment of first responders and — we hope — serves as a powerful deterrent to barricade-busting.

The endangerment law would be most successful if it reduces risky driving to the extent that criminal charges never have to be filed.

The Wilson Times

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