TALLAHASSEE -- Attorney General Pam Bondi, legislators and law enforcement leaders are joining the widow of a Miami cyclist killed in a 2012 hit-and-run crash on the Rickenbacker Causeway in her campaign to crack down on hit-and-run drivers.
At a press conference Tuesday, Patty Cohen said she has been pursuing a change in the law, which now gives drunk drivers an incentive to leave the scene of a hit-and-run, since her husband, Aaron, was struck by a motorist on the causeway’s William Powell Bridge on Feb. 15, 2012.
The proposal, known as the “Aaron Cohen Life Protection Act,” aims to eliminate that incentive.
Under current Florida law, drunk drivers who kill someone receive a minimum mandatory sentence of four years in prison. But those who leave the scene to avoid being caught drinking face less stringent penalties, said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Coral Gables, sponsor of SB 102.
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“It is a growing epidemic,” said Diaz de la Portilla, who was flanked by a nonpartisan group of legislators as well as a cadre of uniformed officers and representatives of police and sheriff’s associations at the press conference.
Florida motorists were involved in 69,994 hit-and-run crashes in 2012, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Of that total, 168 were fatal — roughly three people a week. And most were pedestrians.
“No family should have to suffer like ours has,” said Cohen, whose daughter, Lily, was 3 ½ and her son, Aiden, 9 months, when her 36-year-old husband was killed. He had been riding with cycling partner Enda Walsh, who was injured, when they were hit by Michele Traverso, who fled the scene.
“He kept driving,” Cohen said. “He ran, he hid his car, he never even stopped, he never even called 911.”
Traverso turned himself in 17 hours later. Police found evidence that the Key Biscayne man, on probation for cocaine charges, had been drinking but could not test him because of the time lag. He was eventually sentenced to 364 days in jail and released after 264.
Since the accident, Cohen, who lives in the Roads neighborhood and works as a bond trader for an investment bank, has been working with Walsh and triathlete Mickey Witt on toughening punishment of drivers who flee.
“We have got to be vigilant,” said Bondi, calling the measure “much needed legislation.”
“We live in Florida,” she said. “We’re a tourism state. People love jogging, biking, pushing their baby strollers down our streets.”
Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, who is sponsoring the House counterpart (HB 183), said that getting help right away “can mean the difference between life and death for these victims.”
The proposed legislation will:
Create a minimum mandatory sentence of four years for leaving the scene of an accident which results in death (with an allowance for downward departure by the court when mitigating factors exist).
Increase existing minimum mandatory sentence from two to four years for leaving the scene of an accident resulting in death with DUI.
Increase the penalty for leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony.
Define “Vulnerable Road User” (VRU) — someone who isn’t protected by a car — and raise the level in the criminal punishment code when a cyclist, motorcyclist or pedestrian is injured or killed.
Require a three-year revocation of the offender’s driver’s license and, prior to reinstatement, a driver’s education course on the rights of vulnerable road users.
Senate Bill 102 unanimously passed its first two committee stops, with two more to go. The first committee hearing for HB 183 will be in the House Transportation and Highway Safety Subcommittee — it has four stops in the House.
While more is needed to improve roads for cyclists, Cohen said, the law, and more public awareness, is a start.
“We can only do so much to change people,” she said. “One thing we can do is change the law.”