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NO TIME FOR POLITICS

State Sen. Mary Lou Rath and Assemblyman James Hayes, both Amherst Republicans, have introduced a bill in the State Legislature that would close a loophole in New York law, making it a far more serious crime to leave the scene of a fatal auto accident than it is now. It would be disgraceful if this legislation were to die because of Albany politics.

Unfortunately, observers in Albany fear the Rath-Hayes bill may be just as dead as many a hit-and-run victim because Democrats who control the Assembly are, as a rule, reluctant to support Republican-sponsored measures, especially if they deal with issues of any significance.

That would be a travesty. There are times for partisanship and times to put concern for constituents above political considerations. The Rath-Hayes bill certainly deserves bipartisan support.

The two Amherst legislators drafted the bill in response to community outrage over the case involving Drew Tidwell, the former attorney who pleaded guilty earlier this month to leaving the scene of a fatal accident. Because of a loophole in the law, he faces only one year in jail.

He admitted that he was the driver of the car that struck and killed bicyclist Donald Fruehauf in Amherst in August. Instead of stopping to see if he could help the injured man, who died a short time later, Tidwell fled the scene. Four days later his lawyer called authorities to tell them they could find the hit-run vehicle in Tidwell's garage.

Although witnesses say they saw Tidwell drinking in a nearby bar shortly before Fruehauf was struck, prosecutors could charge him only with leaving the scene of an accident, a Class E felony with a maximum penalty of four years in prison. That was because there were no witnesses and no blood or breath evidence that he was intoxicated at the time of the accident. So under a plea arrangement, Tidwell will go to jail for a year and surrender his license to practice law.

If Tidwell had stayed at the scene and there was evidence he was drunk or driving irresponsibly, he could have been charged with vehicular manslaughter, a Class D felony with a maximum prison term of seven years. That may have been a more appropriate charge, and if there were mitigating circumstances, they could have been reflected in the sentencing.

The lesson to be learned from the Tidwell case, some observers say, is that if you drink and drive and have an accident, the smart thing to do, if no one is looking, is run away.

Smart, but wrong. Rath and Hayes aim to take the incentive out of running away. Their bill, which has the support of Erie County District Attorney Frank Clark, would upgrade leaving the scene of a fatal accident to a Class D felony, with the same penalty, up to seven years in prison, as vehicular manslaughter.

That's the way it should be. Rath is correct when she says that "hit, run and hide is a moral outrage."

Killing a bill that rights an obvious wrong would only compound that outrage.

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