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New vehicular homicide law highlighted during Alabama work zone awareness event
Marshall Walton was an all-star soccer player at St. Paul's Episcopal School whose passion was fishing. He was "known by many and loved by all," his father recalled Monday.
But on Feb. 13, 2015, Walton's life was cut short at age 25, after a distracted driver struck and killed him in a work zone on U.S. 45 near Citronelle. Though the family sought justice, the driver was never charged.
"He didn't even get a speeding ticket because no law enforcement officer was there to observe him speeding," Marshall's father, Johnny Walton said during a news conference honoring this year's National Work Zone Awareness Week. "My wife, Kathy, and I were outraged by this injustice."
The Walton's efforts led to last year's passage of The Marshall James Walton Highway Safety Act, which reinstated Alabama's vehicular homicide statute that was repealed in 2014.
The law, signed by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey last May, makes it a Class C felony for someone convicted of vehicular homicide that is not a DUI. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, under Alabama law, falls under harsher sentencing guidelines.
Car crashes involving texting and driving or speeding can apply under the new law, and punishment can land someone in prison up to nine years based on the severity of the crime.
State Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, said the repeal of the original law came as a "surprise" to lawmakers last year. He said he believes the original law was included in more comprehensive legislation aimed at "taking away government intrusion."
Said Pittman: "The fact is that sometimes it takes tragedies to raise the level of awareness for the modification of law, which is a serious thing. But in this case, you had a law that had been repealed."
The legislation last year, which Pittman sponsored in the Senate, did generate some opposition in the Legislature before it passed the House by a 77-19 vote.
"When we tried to pass the bill, there were a lot of concerns that you could impact people who do have accidents that are unintended," said Pittman. "But accidents are accidents and there has to be some glitch on behalf of the driver and a disregard of the law."
Pittman said that in order to be convicted under the law, "there has to be a pretty high threshold." Texting and driving which results in a fatal car crash can be applied under the new statute.
No one has been convicted or even charged for vehicular homicide since the law took effect in August.
"The intent of the law wasn't to charge people, but to make them more aware to slow down, obey the laws and be aware that other is backing this week with the theme, "Work Zone Safety: Everybody's Responsibility."
Said Johnny Walton, who operates a construction firm in Mobile: "We hope the law serves as a deterrant for any distriction outside the DUI statute."
Alerting the public about the new law was only one element of the news conference. Public officials also talked about the Alabama Department of Transportation's support of a new theme, "Work Zone Safety: Everybody's Responsiblity" and a series of billboards that will be unveiled this week.
Approximately 50 billboards will be posted statewide alerting motorists to slow down in work zones. Most those billboards will include Marshall Watson's photo.
"In my time as director, I've attended funerals and visited people in hospitals who have been injured and, in almost all cases, those injuries or deaths occurred because someone lost attention because of driver error," said John Cooper, director of ALDOT.
The year Marshall Walton was killed, in 2015, was particularly tragic within Alabama work zones. According to ALDOT statistics, there were 2,452 work zone crashes resulting in 31 deaths and 492 injuries. A year later, in 2016, ALDOT records shows there were fewer roadway deaths, but more incidences of work zone crashes with 2,960.
ALDOT is offering tips for driving safely this year in work zones:
- Check ALGOTraffic.com to find out if there is construction work zones along your path and allow extra time to navigate those areas.
- Do not allow distracted driving to occur by texting, eating or other activities that take your hands off the wheel.
- Drivers should not speed to try and pass other vehicles as they merge into work zones.
- Slow down within a work zone as drivers may suddenly encounter slowed or stopped traffic.
- Maintain safe driving distances.