Roadside fundraising is a safety hazard

Thursday, February 24, 2011; 8:03 PM

THE "FILL THE BOOT" campaign, a fundraising project sponsored by the International Association of Firefighters nationwide, is an indisputably worthy cause that appeals to Americans' compassion for the benefit of victims of muscular dystrophy. But in the course of raising millions of dollars annually, is the campaign also a peril to drivers and fundraisers alike, who encounter each other in roadways where the firefighters appeal for funds? And are the fundraising efforts of firefighters, like those of panhandlers, a nuisance that should not be inflicted on motorists?

It may sound heartless to say it, but the answer to both questions is yes. That's why states and localities that have moved to prohibit roadway appeals for money - whether by mendicants or by charitable groups - are within their rights.

Montgomery County is a test case for the issue, and an important one. In the past two years, Montgomery firefighters have raised almost half a million dollars for the "Fill the Boot" campaign, more than firefighters in all but five jurisdictions nationwide. (Fairfax firefighters are tops in the country, having raised $1 million in the past two years.)

But members of the Montgomery County Council are appealing to state lawmakers for the authority to ban soliciting in roadways. They should get it.

The firefighters argue that their contributions would decline (as they have anyway in the past year, probably due to the recession) if they were forced to shift to other fundraising means or locales. But America is a nation full of charitable appeals, and plenty of good causes manage to attract donors and funds without resorting to appeals to drivers behind the wheel.

True, firefighters would need the permission of property owners or tenants if they shifted their efforts to shopping malls or sidewalks in front of supermarkets; in some instances, they might not get it. So understandably, the firefighters prefer not to mess with the status quo.

But with thousands of firefighters in hundreds of localities plying crowded intersections, it's simply implausible to imagine there is no impact on traffic safety. After all, anyone who solicits money in the roadway, whether from the median strip, the sidewalk or between cars, is by definition distracting drivers from their main obligation, which is to be alert to other cars, traffic signals and pedestrians at walkways. Unlike a city's sidewalks, where fundraising appeals are commonplace, roadways are inherently dangerous.

In Montgomery, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) has not sought a total ban on roadway soliciting, as some council members have. He has proposed a middle course, which would empower the county to require those who would solicit funds in roadways to seek permits, which would be limited in time and to a particular location. But adding that layer of bureaucracy doesn't address the potential danger of roadway soliciting. And if the county were to grant permits to some groups or individuals, on what grounds could it deny them to others?

A number of other localities in Maryland, including Prince George's and Frederick counties, have banned roadway soliciting. Of course, doing so has not stopped all panhandlers from working lanes of idling traffic. But it reinforces a basic truth: The roads are for driving.

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