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Free pass for city's aggressive drivers?

Ignoring fender-benders will encourage worse.

By Brian Hickey

While driving home from Dunkin' Donuts with my morning iced coffee a few months ago, I was involved in a fender-bender where Ridge Avenue meets Midvale. There were no injuries, there was no damage to nearby property, and both cars were still in driving condition.

As of Monday, it was exactly the type of incident no longer deemed worthy of police intervention in Philadelphia.

So what's the problem? Even if the other driver had remained at the scene - which she didn't - it was also exactly the type of incident in which police intervention was, is, and always will be worthwhile.

I share the anecdote for two reasons. One: It's further evidence that common courtesy is the exception on Philadelphia roadways. Two: By publicly labeling fender-benders as beneath them, the Police Department has started peddling a gateway drug that could convince bad motorists that there's no price to pay for driving amok.

But let's imagine we live in a perfect city, where 11-year-old girls don't get vomited on at baseball games and drivers don't hit pedestrians and leave them for dead in the street with frightening regularity. In that alternate-universe Philadelphia, the new police policy makes perfect sense.

The Police Department says collisions with minimal damage "no longer require police to respond to the scene of the accident." Drivers should "move their cars to the side of the road"; call an already overburdened 911 center, "where they will be asked a series of questions to determine whether or not police must be dispatched"; and exchange personal, vehicle, and insurance information before getting a "district control number" to share with their insurer.

Case quickly closed - presumably leaving police to handle real crimes, which is better than making them examine the kind of minor dent on a bumper that often goes unreported anyway.

Here's the rub: In real Philadelphia, auto-case attorneys are already hard at billable-hours work formalizing their defense for incidents that go beyond bent fenders: "He didn't realize he had to stop. After all, the police don't even think it's important enough to respond in person."

The implications of even implicitly condoning leaving the scene are troubling. What if one of the drivers smells like a winery? Or is uninsured? Or is fleeing the scene of another crime, such as, say, a cop shooting?

The same police who concocted this streamlining went into a snit when District Attorney Seth Williams mentioned weakening the city's marijuana-possession enforcement on the theory that the drug is a gateway to other problems. So why give aggressive drivers cover to escalate their behavior to hit-and-runs?

Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey should know this isn't ponies-and-rainbows land. If you give Philadelphia criminals a tenth of a mile, they'll seize I-95. This policy complicates something simple and cedes an advantage to people who might be involved in more than a fender-bender.

Attorney Mike van der Veen, who handles many automobile-related cases, mentioned a litany of other legal implications: the problem of injuries that don't become evident until later, increased civil litigation, false accident reports, reluctant witnesses, claims that insurers won't process without valid police reports, untrained civilians handling traffic control, and uncredentialed drivers and cars going unpunished.

"Are they going to say they'll stop responding to vandalism or theft next, or all nonviolent crimes?" van der Veen wondered. "It's not well-thought-out."

If someone wants a police officer to respond to the scene of a fender-bender for any reason, an officer should respond - no questions asked, no attitude given. Aggressive, selfish behavior on the roadways is clearly on the rise, and there's a connection between minor accidents and serious ones (like hit-and-runs).

I'm reminded of two things I heard back in March during the state Senate Transportation Committee's hearings on (ironically) strengthening leaving-the-scene laws. State Police Commissioner Col. Frank E. Pawlowski said, "Anything you can do to put some teeth into the law with regards to penalties would help."

Then Dolores Roberto, whose 12-year-old son, Peter, was killed by a drunken motorist, said, "Maybe I just give people too much credit, but I still can't understand how someone can just leave the scene of a real accident."

This week it got easier to understand in Philly. And that's a shame.