Dover Post

June 30, 2003

 

DOVER WOMAN’S CRUSADE LEADS TO LEGISLATION AGAINST DRIVERS WHO KILL

 

By JEFF BROWN

Staff writer

 

When someone dies a tragic death, those of us left behind often wonder, “Why?”

 

Warren G.H. Pritchett Jr. was hit by a truck while bicycling along a rural Kent County road on Nov. 20. When he died of a fractured skull less than an hour afterward, his daughter decided she had to find the answer to that often-unanswerable question.

 

Abby Reichardt found her answer – part of it, at least – last Wednesday, June 25, when the Delaware State Senate passed HB190, the Warren G.H. Pritchett Jr. Act. The legislation closes a gap in the Delaware legal code that had allowed some drivers to face little more than a reckless driving charge when involved in an accident, even if their actions caused the death of another person.

 

A spokesman for Gov. Ruth Ann Minner said Friday the governor intends to sign the bill within the next few days.

 

Reichardt describes her 55-year-old father as “a strong man” who loved to collect anything collectable, who had a passion for NASCAR and who exercised daily by pedaling his bike along Kent County’s back roads. Pritchett was riding that bicycle eastbound on Central Church Road Nov. 20 when he was approached by a tow truck, also traveling eastbound.

 

According to police reports, the truck hit Pritchett’s bicycle from behind, throwing him more than 110 feet. Still alive when ambulance crews reached the scene, Pritchett was rushed to Bayhealth-Kent General Hospital, but died soon after arrival. His death had been, it seemed, one of those tragedies that occur daily on roads throughout the country.

 

In the days following her father’s death, Reichardt said she began to question the circumstances surrounding the incident. Mostly, she said, she wanted to know why someone who showed no evidence of intoxication, driving on a straight dry road with no opposing traffic, had apparently done little to avoid hitting a man riding a bicycle only 14 inches from the edge of the road.

 

The driver, Gregory Keiser, 44, of Hartly, was charged six days later by Delaware State Police with a single count of criminally negligent homicide. Reichardt said she and her family were shocked when, four months later, that charge was dismissed by the state Attorney General’s office. There was insufficient evidence, it seemed, to prosecute a homicide case.

 

The state eventually charged Keiser with careless driving, a misdemeanor offense under the state traffic code that carries a potential maximum sentence of a $115 fine and 30 days in prison.

 

Reichardt said she felt “betrayed” by a justice system that would only charge a suspect with a crime whose penalty was no different than if he had hit a mailbox. She decided to do what she could to get the law changed.

 

“Then I went on a rampage, contacting everyone and anyone,” Reichardt said. She fired off letters to Minner, Attorney General M. Jane Brady, Delaware Sen. Joe Biden and her local senator, Nancy Cook, among others. It was, she said, simply something she had to do.

 

“The inequity in the circumstances that careless driving covers is what led me to do whatever necessary to see that the archaic laws were changed to cover circumstances where a life is taken with the use of a vehicle, even when the influence of drugs or alcohol are not an issue,” Reichardt said.

 

The first person she heard from was Don Carbaugh, chairman of the Delaware Bicycle Council, an appointed body that advises the governor on bicycle-related issues. It was Carbaugh that helped Reichardt get the ball rolling on what would eventually become HB190.

 

He and many other biking enthusiasts supported Reichardt, Carbaugh said, because there needed to be an intermediate offense between criminally negligent homicide and careless driving.

 

Carbaugh said that even if Pritchett had been breaking the law, which police reports indicated he was not, the driver of the truck would still have been obligated to do everything possible to avoid the accident.

 

“There is a principle in traffic law of last chance to avoid an accident,” Carbaugh explained. “If a person has a last chance to avoid an accident, that person has the obligation to avoid it. Even if the other person is wrong, you need to do it.”

 

Drivers must recognize that bicyclists have just as much right to the road as they do, Carbaugh said.

 

Convinced that there needed to be something to “fill the gap” for bicyclists and pedestrians using state roads, State Rep. Wayne A. Smith, R-Brandywine Hundred North, started drafting what became known as the Warren G.H. Pritchett Jr. Act.

 

“We needed to find an appropriate penalty for situations like this,” Smith said in April. “There was either a very high penalty, or a slap on the wrist.”

 

The bill added an unclassified misdemeanor to the state’s traffic code, and provided a first-offense penalty of a maximum $1,150 fine and 30 months imprisonment. It was introduced in the House of Representatives June 3 and sent to the House Judiciary Committee the following day.

 

Smith asked Reichardt to speak to the committee on behalf of the bill.

 

“Although I had prepared notes, once I stood before the committee all I could do was speak from the heart,” Reichardt said. She spoke of her family’s loss and how the devastation from that loss was increased when her family found out that under Delaware law her father’s death had been classified as “nothing more than a simple driving violation.”

 

The bill passed the House unanimously and went to the Senate, where it was approved by that body’s Judiciary Committee.

 

The bill finally came up for a vote by the full Senate the afternoon of June 25. Going in, Reichardt said she felt good about the bill’s chances – up until the time several senators started questioning Attorney General’s Office representative Paul Williams about the legislation.

 

“As it went on, I got very nervous,” Reichardt said. “Everyone seemed to want to have a special situation; they all had different scenarios.” Reichardt persuaded Sen. Nancy Cook, who had sponsored HB190 in the Senate, to ask she be allowed to address that body.

 

“I wasn’t expecting to, but I felt I needed to humanize it,” she said.

 

Reichardt stood before the 21 state senators and explained the circumstances of her father’s death to the chamber, her experiences with the state legal system, and her desire to see some means of redress for families that in the future may experience the loss of a loved one under the same circumstances as her father.

 

Moments later, Reichardt’s struggle to make some sense of her father’s death came one step closer to its goal. By a vote of 14-3, with four abstentions, the Senate passed the Warren G. H. Pritchett Jr. Act.

 

“I’m elated,” said Pritchett’s widow, Shirley Pritchett, as she stood outside the Senate chamber with her daughter Abby after the vote.

 

“I knew it would pass, but once the questions started coming up, I kept on praying.”

 

With the fight on behalf of her father all but over, Reichardt reflected on the past seven months.

 

“It is amazing how your life can be turned upside down in a heartbeat,” she said. “When I said goodbye to my father the night before he died, I had no idea it would be the last time.”

 

“You don’t really have time to grieve and start to heal in a situation such as this, because each day there is another issue waiting to be faced, another battle to be fought.”

 

As for Keiser, the Hartly man was convicted June 10 on a single charge of careless driving. He faces sentencing later this month, although his attorney has filed a motion for a new trial; that action also is pending in court.

 

Reichardt said Monday afternoon that she daily asks herself why her father had to die. She may never really find an answer, she said, but with the passage of HB190, she feels Warren Pritchett’s death may serve a greater purpose.

 

“I've learned that one person can make a difference,” she said. “If you believe in something, no matter how hard it may be, you have to fight for it.”

 

“Maybe this happened to make me a stronger person. Now that I know that I can make a difference, I plan to continue to do so,” she continued.

 

“However, next time I pray that it won’t be our own personal tragedy that prompts me to do so.”