Counterpoint

I write in response to Michael Friedman's Oct. 13 commentary "Tough sentences may feel good, but aren't necessarily a solution" to explain why I and many others believe it is appropriate to increase the sanctions on careless driving resulting in death -- from a misdemeanor to a gross misdemeanor under Minnesota law.

First of all, let's be perfectly clear about what careless driving really is. Under current law, this misdemeanor crime is defined as driving "carelessly or heedlessly in disregard of the rights of others, or in a manner that endangers or is likely to endanger any property or any person."

 It means failing to use the same standard of care that a reasonable person would use under similar circumstances.

We are not talking about unavoidable accidents that would occur regardless of whether the driver is engaged in responsible and lawful driving.

The proposed legislation would apply only to drivers who cause the death of a person while taking unreasonable risks such as speeding, texting or talking on a cell phone while driving, or falling asleep behind the wheel.

 Killing someone through careless driving under such circumstances is not an unavoidable accident.

Unfortunately, under our current laws, when gross negligence (defined as very great negligence or driving without even scant care) cannot be proven, there is no difference between the careless driver whose accident results in minor property damage and the careless driver who kills someone.

They both are misdemeanors. Yet, while property damage can be easily repaired, the death of a person has everlasting impact on the victim's family and friends.

It is because of these inequities that I, with the support of many prosecutors, police officers, victim advocacy organizations, crime victims and a number of legislators, have been seeking to change this law.

Fixing this problem by increasing the penalty to a gross misdemeanor when a negligent driver takes unreasonable risks and someone dies as a result properly takes into account the long-term impact of the careless driver's conduct.

Making this change is the right thing to do, and it is in the interests of justice and personal accountability.

I believe that making this change in the law may well have the same impact that criminalizing drunken driving has had in our society. Hopefully, it will make more people think about the unreasonable risks they are taking behind the wheel of a vehicle.

We all should do so, as death can result in an instant when a driver is not maintaining a proper lookout and safely following traffic regulations.

This issue is not just about locking people up for longer periods of time. Even if passed, this change in law will not necessarily result in any significant increase in jail time.

I am confident that our state's judges will properly take the level of unreasonableness of a driver's negligent actions into consideration when determining the level of sanctions to be imposed upon conviction.

What the change will do, however, is allow the surviving members of victim's families to know that the matter is being dealt with by our criminal-justice system in a more serious manner than it would be if only property damage had occurred.

It also will allow the courts to impose more time on probation with appropriate restrictions and creative sanctions designed to avoid repeat occurrences of these types of tragedies.

This issue is not about "winning" at all costs, as Friedman suggests. It is about seeking more appropriate justice on behalf of the family members who have lost a loved one in one of these preventable tragedies.

It is about establishing a law dealing with taking unreasonable and negligent risks while driving that rightfully reflects that it is more serious to hit and kill a human being than it is to damage a mailbox.

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James C. Backstrom is the Dakota County Attorney.