An anonymous way to die

Remember when we said goodbye to Granny?

Rose McDonald was killed by a hit and run driver on Waldo Road on Jan. 30. Gainesville police waited a month to release her identity.

That’s when we discovered that Rose and Granny were one and the same: An irrepressibly upbeat and eminently likable street person who was admired by scores of Gainesville residents.

It was a tribute to Granny’s popularity that her friends held not one but two memorial services for her at Bo Diddley Plaza.

I mention this because under a new Florida Highway Patrol policy – one sure to be adopted by other law enforcement agencies – Granny’s name would never have been released. And her friends would not have known what became of her.

As of April the FHP no longer identifies the people involved in its press releases about traffic fatalities. This due to agency interpretation of a state constitutional amendment, popularly called Marsy’s Law, intended to protect the privacy of crime victims.

No question that Granny was the victim of a crime. But the FHP’s blanket policy assumes that every person killed in any auto accident no matter the circumstances is, by default, a crime victim.

And it’s not just the dead who go unnamed. When a pregnant woman in Broward County was killed, the other motorist, charged with gross vehicular manslaughter, was also not named.

Does that mean drunk drivers are also crime victims?

In a way I can buy the logic that anyone killed in traffic is a crime victim. That’s because we as a society routinely design our roads and write our laws to facilitate, or at least encourage, fast, careless and distracted driving. That’s a major reason why upwards of 40,000 Americans die on our streets and highways every year.

Of course, if you accept that logic, then all of us are perpetrators of the crime of death by motor vehicle.

Not surprisingly, the FHP’s new policy isn’t without critics.

“When the government, particularly law enforcement, withholds information from us, it erodes public trust,” Barbara Petersen, president emeritus of the First Amendment Foundation, told the Tampa Bay Times. “It’s government’s job to give us the information that we need to be informed and engaged in our communities.”

And the Florida Press Association says the patrol “seems to be reading Marsy’s Law way too broadly…if a person is injured in a wreck resulting from a driver’s negligence or a road condition, there is no crime and no crime victim that Marsy’s Law was intended to address.”

Which is not to say that identities will necessarily be locked away forever. News organizations have the option of buying accident reports, which do contain names…at $10 a pop. But the patrol has wide discretion in deciding when to release those reports.

More than 3,000 people per year die on Florida roads. So after a while you’re talking real money for newspapers that are already laying off staffers and reducing coverage.

It’s not hard to imagine that the patrol regards Marsy’s Law as a bureaucrat’s, um, vehicle of convenience. Just one more way to sidestep the public records law in a state that creates new exemptions every year.

As it is, death by traffic is already a uniquely anonymous way to go in autoAmerica. We slaughter so many people with our cars that each individual death typically rates only a few paragraphs in the briefs section.

In withholding names Florida only further consigns people like Granny to oblivion.

Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at floridavelocipede.com.

Author: floridavelocipede

A sometime journalist who used to string words together for a living before I retired to run a non-profit cycle touring organization that will henceforth go unnamed, as I have subsequently retired from that career as well. I write a bi-monthly column, theater reviews and an occasional magazine piece for my old newspaper. If I still had a business card it would read: Ron Cunningham: Trained Observer Of The Human Condition. Because like The Donald, you know, ego.

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