State Assemblyman Michael Montesano, a Republican from Glen Head, announced on March 26 that he would co-sponsor a bill that would stiffen the penalties for fleeing the scene of an accident without reporting it to the police. Currently a Class A misdemeanor, the violation would become a Class E felony for a first offense and a Class D felony for a second offense.
In New York state, a Class A misdemeanor can result in one year in jail or up to $1,000 in fines. Those who commit a class E felony, however, can face between one and four years in jail.
“In the last year or so, we’ve been seeing reports of a lot of leaving the scene of accidents,” Montesano said. “In many cases, we have seen people left on the roadside, essentially to die.”
The assemblyman explained that one of the primary reasons people flee the scenes of accidents is because they are driving drunk or under the influence of drugs. Many drivers, he said, will turn themselves in to the police within the next few days, after they are no longer intoxicated, thus avoiding felony DWI or DUI charges. If this new bill were to pass, Montesano said, “It’s not in their benefit to run anymore.”
Lt. Detective John Nagle, of the Glen Cove Police Department, said that this assumed “benefit” has made the violation more common. He also said that he would strongly support the changes that the bill would bring about. “The problem is, people are weighing the benefits,” he explained. “By changing our law, people might think twice about running away from an accident.”
According to Nagle, drivers fleeing the scenes of accidents has been a pervasive issue in Glen Cove over the past 15 months. In 2018, there were 90 such violations. As of April 1, there had been 20 this year. He said he believed the bill could go a long way toward solving this problem.
“This kind of closes the loophole where people leaving the scene think they won’t get charged as strongly,” Nagle said.
According to Montesano, the bill is currently working its way through the Assembly, and he hopes a resolution will come by May or June. If the bill were to be passed by the Assembly, it would move on to the State Senate. Sen. Jim Gaughran, a Democrat from Northport, said he planned to support the bill if it made it to that point.
“I think if somebody is in a serious accident, and they just leave the scene without offering to help somebody who might be hurt,” Gaughran said, “that’s just wrong.”
His only real concern with the bill, he added, is what it might define as a serious accident. He explained that he does not believe that calling the police should be a legal requirement in the case of something minor, like a fender-bender. Rather, the law should take effect if someone is hurt or if there is serious damage to at least one of the vehicles.
Montesano said that if the bill passes, he would want drivers to realize that the stakes are higher if they flee the scene of an accident. The welfare of drivers and passengers is his chief concern, he said, and the bill could help to save lives.
“We’re just trying to hold people more accountable and more responsible,” he said, “so, hopefully, more people will use better judgment.”