Ashley McIntosh's death, mother's campaign lead to passage of Va. traffic bill

By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 11:23 PM

Cindy Colasanto had zero experience with the political process before February 2008. No lobbying. No testifying. No petitioning.

But then a Fairfax County police officer zoomed through a red light without her siren on and slammed into the car driven by Colasanto's daughter, Ashley McIntosh, a 33-year-old kindergarten teacher's assistant. McIntosh was killed.

Not long after that, a judge found the officer not guilty of reckless driving.

So Colasanto launched a campaign in 2008 to change Virginia's law on how emergency vehicles may drive through intersections with red lights or stop signs. She sat outside legislators' offices. Testified in hearings. Handed out fact sheets and video discs with the officer's dashboard footage of her daughter's fatal crash.

And "Ashley's Law" was born.

On Thursday, the two houses of Virginia's General Assembly passed the bill by a combined 137 to 1. It would require those operating police cars and fire engines in Virginia to activate emergency lights and sound sirens before driving through a stop light, slow down and yield to other cars, or stop completely if they wanted to keep the siren silent.

The bill now goes to Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), whose spokesman said the governor would review it and decide whether to sign it.

"It was a long journey," Colasanto said, "but in the end, common sense prevailed."

"It wouldn't have passed if she hadn't taken an active role," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax), who helped push the bill through the House. "Cindy was pretty aggressive, and that's what it takes around here sometimes."

Virginia law requires police and fire vehicles using emergency lights to sound the siren or horn "as may be reasonably necessary." Police wanted to maintain their discretion to approach a scene silently.

Colasanto wanted police to sound their vehicle's siren at all times when in pursuit or rapid dispatch and to stop at all red lights. She believes that her daughter would be alive if Officer Amanda Perry had her siren wailing before entering the intersection of Route 1 and Boswell Avenue in the Mount Vernon area and driving through a red light at 38 mph.

The compromise that satisfied both sides added this language to the law: The emergency vehicle that does not have its siren on must slow down "to a speed reasonable for the existing conditions," yield to drivers approaching from another direction or come to a complete stop.

The bill was launched in early 2009 by Sen. Linda T. "Toddy" Puller (D-Fairfax) at Colasanto's request and faced skepticism in Richmond. It was referred to the Senate's Transportation Committee, rather than its Court of Justice Committee. Police groups were not initial supporters.

Puller sent the issue to the Virginia State Crime Commission for further study. There, former state police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill became involved. Once he began to support the bill, things started to turn around, numerous observers said.

"The more I looked at this, the more it made sense," Massengill said. "Every police officer I've talked to says this is what they do anyhow. They simply do not go against a red light without stopping."

Meanwhile, Colasanto was launching her grass-roots campaign, with free political guidance provided by lobbyists Mark Bowles and Mark Hubbard at McGuireWoods Consulting in Richmond. She distributed a fact sheet and video of her daughter's crash to the offices of all 140 legislators. She launched online and paper petitions, which gathered 3,000 signatures in support of Ashley's Law, walking door to door in the Route 1 corridor where the crash happened.

A letter-writing campaign to key legislators generated more than 900 letters, Colasanto said. Colasanto tried to meet personally with every member of the Senate Transportation Committee, sometimes sitting in hallways to land a few minutes with a senator or legislative assistant. She testified in front of the committee in 2009, and then twice before the state crime commission.

"The goal here," she told the commission, "should be to prevent other parents from suffering what we have endured as a result of her death."

Colasanto had no public speaking experience, other than facing the media after the crash and again after Perry's trial. "But because I was so confident with what I was doing," she said, "I didn't have a problem at all."

She also helped research the laws on emergency vehicles and red lights in other states for the crime commission's study. "It took ages," she said. "I'm not a lawyer."

In November, at Massengill's urging, the crime commission unanimously endorsed the bill. It passed both houses Thursday with an amendment to allow for sirens to be silent if the vehicle slows and yields, or stops.

"A lot of times with these emotional cases," Massengill said, substantial change rarely occurs. "I see this one as a teachable standard that will bring about meaningful safety."

Fairfax Police Chief David M. Rohrer said the bill mostly mirrors policies already in place in the county. "We have always placed the burden on the officer to operate with due regard for the safety of others," Rohrer said, "and we have increased our training and awareness on emergency vehicle operations and response driving."

Dana Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said the new law would require much more training statewide, beginning at the recruiting stage. She also said that turning police policies into state law could expose police to more legal liability in crashes.

But Colasanto said Ashley's Law would have the opposite effect.

"The fewer citizens who are killed or maimed" by crashes, Colasanto said, "the fewer lawsuits there would be."

Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.

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