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Amended Hit-and-Run Alert System Bill Sails Through Committee

After last week's warning that Assemblymember Mike Gatto's legislation to create a "Yellow Alert" system was imperiled by Senate Transportation and Housing Committee staff and the California Highway Patrol's (CHP) objections, there was a feeling of a looming showdown before today's committee hearing. Assembly Bill 8 would create a system to use electronic road signs and the emergency alert system to notify people when a deadly hit-and-run crash occurred to help apprehend suspects. A similar system has proven effective in Colorado.

Screen grab of Asm. Mike Gatto at today's Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.
Screen grab of Asm. Mike Gatto at today's Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.

However, the fireworks were kept to a minimum. A.B. 8 advanced with a unanimous committee vote. The committee chair, Senator Jim Beall, was not present, somewhat nullifying the announcement that he was urging a "no" vote on the legislation.

As for the CHP, Gatto staff had worked with the department to amend the legislation to address "95 percent of their concerns." While the Highway Patrol was officially urging a "no" vote, its lobbyist all but stated that the CHP would support an amended bill but had not had a chance to review it yet. Under the amended bill, it will be the California Highway Patrol, not Caltrans, that determines whether or not variable message signs broadcast information about deadly hit-and-run drivers in the area near where the crime was committed.

Similar legislation passed with overwhelming support last year, but was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown, who cited the recently created "Silver Alert" following unexplained disappearances of senior citizens or people who are physically or mentally impaired. Brown was worried that adding the "Yellow Alert" in addition to the "Silver Alert" to the four pre-existing alerts could overwhelm the system.

Senator Ted Gaines brought up the Governor's concerns to discover if Gatto had any insight on whether or not it could cause a second veto. After brief discussion, the committee and Gatto asserted that they had never personally seen a Silver Alert on the highway signs. Statistics backed their anecdotal accounts. There are some areas of the state that have not had a single "Silver Alert" campaign.

CalTrans Highway Sign 2014. photo: Eric Beteille,
CalTrans highway sign in 2014. Photo: Eric Beteille,

Taking the discussion further, Gatto noted that the majority of the times he sees a variable message sign, it features a generic warning: "Don't Drink and Drive" or "Conserve Water." While these are worthy messages, they don't have the immediate impact that helping to catch a hit-and-run driver would have.

“Unlike a stickup… this is a crime where the perpetrator has the means and mechanism to get away quickly," Gatto stated at committee. "This bill is targeted; it does something meaningful. If someone sees someone speeding on a freeway, and someone sees a message on the freeway, they might be part of solving a crime."

Following Gatto's initial testimony, the mother of a hit-and-run victim who was saved by a quick-thinking friend spoke movingly about her family's near-tragedy and its impact, especially with the driver still on the loose. Jim Brown of Sacramento Area Bike Advocates noted that there have been four fatal hit-and-runs in Sacramento in 2015, and that "four drivers who killed people are still on the road today.”

Following Brown, a dozen advocates for safer streets spoke in favor of the bill, including bicycle safety advocates, motorcycle rider advocates, and even the Mayor of Los Angeles' legislative staff.

Next, A.B. 8 will go for a vote at the Senate Appropriations Committee before heading to the full Senate floor. If passed, it heads back to Governor Jerry Brown's desk for his signature or veto. Including today's vote, there has not been a single "no" vote on A.B. 8 in any committee nor on the Assembly floor.

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