Drug testing at car wrecks

BATON ROUGE -- The House Transportation Committee advanced two bills on Monday that would permit drug testing in severe traffic accidents and waive penalties for uninsured drivers under special circumstances.

Sen. Ryan Gatti, R-Bossier City, sponsored a bill that would mandate either chemical, blood or urine testing in a traffic crash involving serious bodily injury or death. Gatti’s bill defines serious bodily injury as one that is “severe” or “incapacitating.”

Louisiana’s current law allows for post-accident drug testing only when a collision results in an on-site fatality. The proposed bill, however, would expand the existing law. 

If the bill were to become law, it would be known as “Katie Bug’s Law,” named after 4-year-old Katie Grantham of Bossier Parish, who was killed in an auto accident in 2017. Though Katie’s mother, Morgan Grantham, suspected the driver who hit them was impaired by drugs, he was not tested by police since Katie did not die at the scene. 

Katie suffered critical injuries to her spinal cord and was taken off life support after seven days in the hospital. The driver, who ran a red light north of Bossier City, served 10 days in prison. Without more sufficient evidence, such as a drug test, prosecutors could only charge him with a traffic violation, instead of negligent or vehicular homicide. 

Crash fatalities remain at a high rate in the state. In 2018, there were 762 confirmed fatalities in Louisiana, according to data from LSU’s Highway Safety Research Group.

Grantham, who testified at the meeting, said while she expects people to do the right thing, the law should hold them accountable for their actions.

“When you make a choice to commit a traffic crime and someone is hurt...you should be accountable to whatever it is that’s in your system that could be impairing your judgment,” Grantham said. 

Under Gatti’s proposal, law enforcement officers would determine whether an accident involves a serious bodily injury. 

Some committee members, however, questioned police officers’ discretion to decide whether to perform a drug test after an accident.

“I could see a scenario where in a small town the sheriff knows the kid’s father or whoever just ran over somebody and they opt not to take the blood,” said Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, expressing her concerns about liability and the need for clear language in the bill.

Rep. Terry Landry, D-New Iberia, who is a retired State Police superintendent, mentioned that he voted against a similar bill by Rep. Raymond Crews, R-Bossier City, on the House floor earlier this month. Landry argued that Crews’ bill did not have an amendment to exempt law enforcement officers from liability following auto accidents.

Legislators also advanced another bill that would waive penalties for uninsured drivers from fines if the registered owner, owner’s spouse, or owner’s child was in the hospital or died.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, would give the commissioner of the Office of Motor Vehicles the ability to exempt drivers without auto insurance from penalties if they qualify. 

Mizell said the bill was inspired by a local family whose daughter had recently died of leukemia. The parents of the college-aged girl were being penalized by the Louisiana Department of Motor Vehicles due to a lapse in her car insurance.

“At the very least, I believe the role of government is to remember the humanity that we’re dealing with,” Franklinton said. “When we make it harder for [people] to conform to the legality of the system that we put in place, we’re doing nobody a service.”

A few legislators, including Marcelle and Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, discussed future amendments or legislation to cap fines and establish a payment plan for fees. 

A bill to regulate the operation of electric scooters also advanced in the committee.

The proposal, authored by Sen. Patrick Cortez, R-Lafayette, defines commercial electric scooters and includes safety and accessibility recommendations from the Department of Transportation and Development.

The legislation would allow local municipalities to regulate electric scooters at their own judgment.

The proposed law would authorize scooter use on Louisiana’s highways, bicycle paths and sidewalks, but local governments could limit or prohibit usage.

Electric scooter companies, such as Bird and Lime, have rapidly sprung up in metropolitan areas, including cities like Atlanta and Austin.

In Lafayette, the two scooter companies started to operate last December but their operations came to a halt in January when Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux requested they pull the scooters due to legal and safety concerns. 

In New Orleans, city officials and councilmembers opposed efforts to implement the scooter ridesharing system last year. 

The bills now move to the House floor after passing the committee without objection.

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