This month, law enforcement agencies statewide gained a new tool to quickly and efficiently spread information after certain serious traffic crashes.
Gov. Larry Hogan approved the new “yellow alert” law, which went into effect Oct. 1 — two days after an unknown hit-and-run driver killed a U.S. Marine who was helping a stranded motorist on U.S. 15. Police have said the driver apparently pulled over after hitting Ferrell but left the scene within a few minutes while witnesses tried to help him.
The new law streamlines local and state police responses to hit-and-run crashes that result in serious injury or death, said Sgt. Marc Black, a Maryland State Police spokesman.
Under the new law, any police agency in the state that looks into a qualifying crash can notify the state police headquarters to get the ball rolling, Black said.
“From there, we’ll send the information out to a number of different agencies: the Maryland Joint Operations Center, the Maryland Coordinated Analysis Center, SHA’s operations center,” Black said. “In some cases, our media office will be notified to get the information out to the media, either through social media, press releases or whatever the most efficient means may be at the time.”
Proposed in the last Maryland General Assembly session by state Sen. Bryan W. Simonaire, yellow alerts came about as a response to a slew of serious — some fatal — hit-and-run crashes in Simonaire’s district in Anne Arundel County in the last several years.
After watching legislation aimed at increasing penalties for hit-and-run drivers fail in a previous legislative session, Simonaire crafted what became known as the yellow alert. He based the law on a similar measure, known as the Medina Alert Program, that was introduced in Aurora, Colorado, then expanded across that state last year.
“When they were still running the program out in Aurora, they reported that, out of 17 [hit-and-run] cases, 13 were resolved,” Simonaire said. “I think here in Anne Arundel County we had maybe five fatal cases, and none of them were resolved.”
Simonaire saw similarities between research underway in Colorado and what he referred to as the “epidemic” of hit-and-run cases reported in Maryland every year.
“There’s something like 18,000 hit-and-run cases in Maryland every year, and while most of them are cases where you go to the mall and when you come back to find someone’s dinged up your car, it’s still an epidemic,” Simonaire said. “So what my legislation does is, it goes after the really serious offenders who are causing serious injuries and killing people.”
Precedent for an immediate, efficient line of communication between local police and state troopers already exists in Maryland, Simonaire said.
Amber alerts activate highway signs and inform media outlets immediately after a potentially dangerous child abduction. Silver alerts broadcast information about missing and endangered seniors, often those with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.
Black was reluctant to compare yellow alerts to amber alerts, but there are similarities in the processes.
In both cases, incidents must fit strict criteria to qualify for an alert. For example, for a yellow alert to be issued, police must have more than a general description of the hit-and-run driver or vehicle seen fleeing the crash.
“If you tell me ‘it was a green minivan,’ that’s not enough, but if you tell me ‘a green Mazda minivan with damage to the front passenger’s side,’ maybe that would be more helpful,” Black said. “Something that will better law enforcement’s chances, and the public’s chances, of identifying the vehicle.”
Yellow alerts are for an immediate response, meaning alerts will only be issued in the hours — ideally minutes — after the crash, while the at-fault driver is still likely in the area.
“We want to get this information out to the area as quickly as possible. ... This is not something that will happen five, six days later,” Black said.
It was hard to say if the Sept. 29 hit-and-run that resulted in the death of 21-year-old U.S. Marine Cpl. William Kyle Ferrell along U.S. 15 would have fit the criteria for a yellow alert.
On one hand, witnesses couldn’t provide an exact description of the striking vehicle, due to the late hour and heavy rainfall that night. The only description has been a truck tractor or heavy-duty pickup truck towing a car carrier trailer.
On the other hand, Simonaire thought that had the legislation been active when Ferrell was killed, the alert would have been activated.
“It’s not a silver bullet that’s going to solve every case, but it gives the police another tool to get these dangerous people off the roads and make our roads safer,” Simonaire said.
No yellow alerts have been issued since the legislation went into effect Oct. 1, according to state police records.