Ocean City Today

Special event zone bill goes to committees

Hearings begin on measure to restrict hotrod hooligans
By Greg Ellison | Mar 01, 2018
Source: File Photo The Maryland General Assembly is working on an emergency bill to provide police enhanced enforcement capabilities, including increased fine structures.

(March 2, 2018) Ocean City leaders testified on Tuesday in Annapolis and were scheduled to do the same thing today (Friday) as the General Assembly considers legislation that would create special event zones to help curtail unruly behavior on the streets during annual automobile and motorcycle gatherings.

Tuesday’s hearing before the Judicial Proceedings Committee was for SB872, which would authorize the State Highway Administration to designate roadways under its purview as special event zones to allow for reduced speed limits and increased penalties.

Sponsored by Sen. Jim Mathias (D-38), the bill would prohibit reckless driving, racing, burning rubber and making excessive noise in designated areas where pedestrians gather near highways.

Speaking before the committee, Mathias said the new designation would be similar to construction zones or school zones in that it would provide for substantially increased fines and potential jail sentences for drivers flagrantly endangering public safety.

“It allows criminal charges to be enacted on this reckless endangerment behavior,” he said.

Despite the assistance of numerous allied law enforcement agencies, Mathias said the events continue to strain response capabilities.

“We just can’t be everywhere all the time,” he said.

Under the proposed legislation, first-time violators could be fined up to $1,000 and face up to one year in jail, with a potential two years of incarceration for subsequent offenses.

Drivers engaging in prohibited behaviors that cause bodily harm to pedestrians would face up to three years in jail and fines up to $5,000. If a pedestrian is killed, drivers could be sentenced to prison for up to 10 years and fined up to $5,000.

“When you come into an area … declared a Special Event Motorized Vehicle Zone you’ll know what to expect if you don’t abide by the law and act flagrantly,” he said.

Mayor Rick Meehan that the extreme rowdiness during motorized events last fall led to the creation of a 27-member Motor Events Task Force that began discussing possible solutions in December.

Meehan said the Cruisin’ Ocean City event began nearly three decades ago when attracting tourists during May was more challenging.

“This was to extend our season,” he said. “The first year there were 160 cars and we thought they were everywhere.”

Since that time the car show has grown exponentially and is currently capped at 3,200 participants, who Meehan said are not always the source of trouble.

“The problem is the thousands of cars that come in conjunction with this event and have no tie to the event,” he said. “In many cases they have no respect for our community or our laws.”

Meehan said the bill would discourage attendees, “that come to Ocean City for all the wrong reasons to not come at all.”

Ocean City Police Chief Ross Buzzuro, who presented a video showing drivers behaving badly during car events last year, said the situation is ripe for tragedy.

“This is truly a detriment to public safety,” he said. “This is truly a recipe for disaster.”

With an excessively high number of drivers violating traffic laws, Buzzuro said, regardless of assistance from the Maryland State Police, and sheriff departments in Worcester, Wicomico and Princess Anne counties, enforcement is challenging.

“Despite our collective efforts, we are unable to deal with this in a manner consistent with providing a certain level of public safety,” he said.

Sen. Wayne Norman (D-35) asked if the proposed fine structure, including tickets up to $1,000, is excessive.

“That’s a pretty hefty ticket and I get my share of speeding tickets,” he said.

Meehan said the maximum figure would not apply in many instances, but regardless, courts ultimately decide fine amounts.

“What it really does is allows us to … double the fines that are currently on the books,” he said.

Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-26) questioned the inclusion of jail sentences of a year or longer.

Buzzuro said possible incarceration would only apply in cases of wanton and willful disregard for traffic laws and pubic safety.

The intent, Buzzuro said was to increase penalties for drivers, as they are currently limited to reckless driving, which carries a maximum of six points and a $500 fine, to include reckless endangerment.

“Reckless endangerment as a criminal charge does not involve vehicles,” he said. “The operation of a vehicle could become criminal in an egregious setting.”

Melanie Pursel, Greater Ocean City Chamber of Commerce executive director, testified that the legislation is primarily intended as a deterrent.

“If you can’t follow our rules and respect our town, our residents and our guests, then please don’t come to Ocean City,” she said.

Worcester County Sheriff Lt. Ed Schreier said over his nearly three decades of law enforcement in the coastal area, the common refrain from drivers cited for traffic infractions remains unchanged.

“I’m at the beach, and that’s their reasoning for why they did what they did,” he said.

Schreier said last year there were approximately 505 traffic-related deaths in Maryland, while also noting car events have left an indelible stamp on area roads.

“The marks from those events are still scarring the roadways in Worcester County and Ocean City,” he said.

Other members of the Ocean City Motorized Events Task Force who testified were Tourism and Marking Director Donna Abbott, Bob Rothermel of TEAM Productions and G. Hale Harrison of the Harrison Group Resort Hotels.

Corresponding legislation, HB1406, co-sponsored by Delegate Mary Beth Carozza (D-38C) has a House Environment and Transportation Committee hearing on Friday.

“It’s key that our colleagues in the Maryland General Assembly understand the serious public safety challenges that we’ve been facing with these major vehicle events,” she said.

Based on feedback from law enforcement officials, Carozza said enhanced penalty structures are obviously warranted.

“It’s clear with the enormous amount of violations during these events that the existing penalties are not serving as a deterrent in controlling these dangerous situations,” she said.

Speaking after the hearing, Mathias noted the importance of deeming the measure an emergency bill to allow for passage prior to this spring.

“It would not be enacted until June 1 as a regular bill,” he said. “With an emergency bill the minute it’s passed it goes to governors desk.”

To avoid unintended consequences statewide, Mathias has consulted with the Maryland Attorney General to possibly amend and localize the bill to Worcester County.

“This is an important tool that the town and law enforcement need,” he said.

Contingent on a favorable committee report, Mathias hopes the bill will have a short path to the Senate floor and eventual passage.

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