TALLAHASSEE -- When the driver who fatally struck cyclist Aaron Cohen was sentenced to less than a year in jail, members of the South Florida cycling community were outraged.
“We needed to do something,” said Enda Walsh, who was riding with Cohen at the time of the February 2012 hit-and-run crash.
Their response: a legislative proposal known as the Aaron Cohen Act Life Protection Act. The bill seeks to create tougher penalties for drivers who leave the scene of an accident.
Proponents say the measure is necessary because Florida law gives drunken drivers an incentive to take off after a crash. If they stay at the scene, they will likely face harsher penalties for DUI.
“At the moment, they are much better off hiding until their blood alcohol level drops,” said Markus Wagner, a University of Miami law professor involved in the effort to pass the bill.
Investigators found evidence suggesting Michele Traverso had been drinking before he struck Cohen on the Rickenbacker Causeway. But they were unable to test his blood alcohol level because he drove away.
Traverso was sentenced to 364 days in jail for leaving the scene of an accident. He would have faced a minimum of four years had he been found guilty of DUI manslaughter.
The Aaron Cohen Act proposes a mandatory minimum sentence of three years for drivers who leave the scene of an accident resulting in injuries. Fleeing drivers who seriously hurt or kill someone would face a mandatory seven or 10 years, respectively. They would also have to complete driver education courses about “vulnerable road users,” such as cyclists, pedestrians and emergency service workers.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, who is sponsoring the bill in the upper chamber with Sen. Rene Garcia, said Florida law needs to do a better job protecting anyone “not wearing a metal exoskeleton.”
“It’s an important safety issue, particularly in South Florida,” he said.
Rep. Eddy Gonzalez, R-Hialeah, plans to carry the proposal in the House.
Florida motorists were involved in 69,994 hit-and-run crashes in 2012, according to the Florida Highway Patrol. Of that total, 168 were fatal.
Cohen’s death touched a nerve in Miami. The 35-year-old car dealer was a triathlete and father of two young children.
Walsh and his fellow cyclists have launched a petition to support the proposed legislation at www.aaroncohenlaw.org. The group also plans to travel to Tallahassee at least six times during the upcoming legislative session, which begins in March.
“We’re not so naïve as to think this will be easy,” Walsh said. “To the cyclists and the runners, it’s a no brainer. But we saw the efforts to block the texting-while-driving bill and other safety measures.”
They may face concerns about the cost of longer prison sentences, which have dogged past attempts to raise mandatory minimum sentences.
Passing the legislation, Walsh said, would be a “fitting tribute” to his friend.
“If it had been anyone else who was killed, Aaron would be leading the charge,” he said. “If we can do anything to honor his memory, this would be it.”
Miami Herald staff writer Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.