New exhibition driving bill would stiffen penalties, including fines and jail time
While doing donuts in the middle of John Rogers Drive in east Birmingham, a driver lost control and careened into a crowd of onlookers. Nine people were critically injured, and a five-year-old child, allegedly there with family members, was also hurt.
The crash last December was just one of many incidents related to exhibition driving and street racing in the Birmingham area in which people were hurt. Several people have even died, including a 14-year-old boy, after he was hit by a car racing in west Birmingham last July.
It was after that death that Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin called State Representative Allen Treadaway, and the two began to discuss a new law that targeted exhibition driving.
“I remember the mayor was very adamant about trying to address this after the loss of that life,” Treadaway said. “And I remember him calling me twice on a Sunday. It meant that much to him.”
“We’re seeing larger and larger crowds, younger and younger folks attending [these driving events]. And we’ve seen a number of tragedies,” Treadaway said. “We needed to do something to address this.”
But the state needed a new law, according to Treadaway, because the current laws addressing reckless driving do not go far enough.
A new enforcement tool
Truman Fitzgerald, an officer with the Birmingham Police Department’s Public Information Division, agrees.
“Our officers feel helpless, and what our officers need is just that legislative tool to help them do their job.”
He said people participating in exhibition driving know officers are limited in what they can do.
“What you have is individuals that are aware of the law and [because] they understand that there’s not a law geared towards exhibition driving, they’re going to be more bold.”
Fitzgerald said he’s seen a change in attitude among drivers when police officers have tried to break up exhibition driving events, often called sideshows. Previously, the drivers would attempt to flee the scene, but more recently, he said, “We’ve seen [drivers] not even care. They still continue doing what they’re doing.
“And that’s a dangerous situation when people don’t have that adherence to the law, and they don’t mind breaking the law in the presence of our officers.”
The specifics of the new bill
Treadaway, a Republican representing the Morris area in north Jefferson County, is also a retired assistant Birmingham police chief. He said he’s heard of that brazen attitude too, making the need for a new law all the more immediate.
So, after the call from Woodfin, he immediately began working on a bill to be presented to the Alabama Legislature this year. To do so, he joined with fellow Representative Rolanda Hollis and State Senator Rodger Smitherman, both Democrats of Birmingham, to stiffen penalties for exhibition driving.
In addition to increasing penalties, the bill also defines “exhibition driving.”
“It defines what a burnout is, what racing is, what donuts are, things that are not in the current law,” Treadaway said. “And then addresses them as far as making them an arrestable offense on the first time.”
The bill also allows for fines, the seizure of a vehicle, and it can prohibit a convicted person from driving. If someone other than the driver is hurt or killed as the result of exhibition driving, the perpetrator could get up to 20 years in prison.
“You could lose your freedom for quite a long time under this new law,” Treadaway said.
A statewide law
The bill’s supporters say an exhibition law needs to cover the entire state.
“When you pass a local law, that would only be [enforced] within that city or county,” Representative Hollis said. “But it’s not just happening in Jefferson County, it’s happening all over. So, we’re passing it for the state of Alabama.”
To that end, mayors from the state’s 10 largest cities recently came out in support of the bill. Also, Hollis said the bill is receiving broad support in the legislature.
“Pretty much everybody is in agreement with this bill, because they see it as a danger out there to a lot of constituents,” Hollis said.
“I haven’t had anybody call me in opposition to the bill,” Treadaway said. “Exhibition driving can happen anywhere. That’s why it’s important to do a general [statewide] bill and not a local bill.
“There’s a lot of angry people, a lot of concerned people that feel like If we don’t do something, we’re going to see more loss of life and more injuries and more property damage. So that’s what this bill tries to do is address that.”
The bill’s supporters hope the bill can be passed early in the state’s regular session this year. If that happens, the new law could be on the books as early as this summer.