Our hearts go out to the families of 1-year-old Vada-Leigh Peaslee, her grandmother Barbara Maxim-Hendsbee, and Rosalyn Jean, the three people killed May 20, 2021, on Cony Road in Augusta when a driver fell asleep and went off the road, hitting them as they walked.

State Trooper Patrick Munzing works the controls of the drone he is flying over the scene of a 2021 accident in which three pedestrians died on Cony Road in Augusta. In the ditch behind Munzing is the car whose driver, Robert Santerre, struck and killed the pedestrians. Santerre – who faces no criminal charges in the case – will make his next court appearance Wednesday. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal, File

As the driver, Robert Santerre, 57, of Chelsea, prepares for a court appearance Wednesday, the victims’ loved ones are finding out how little the law, and our culture as a whole, recognizes anyone who uses a road for something other than driving.

Police say Santerre, who has pleaded not guilty, admitted nodding off at the wheel. He was going 17 mph over the speed limit, they say, when he hit the three pedestrians, who were walking off the road on the opposite side of the street. He is facing three counts of a motor vehicle violation resulting in death, a civil charge with a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine and four-year license suspension. Jail time is not on the table.

Kennebec County District Attorney Maeghan Maloney told the Kennebec Journal that Santerre’s actions did not rise to the level of manslaughter, which she said would require criminal speeding – exceeding the posted speed limit by at least 30 mph – or the presence of drugs or alcohol.

But it’s not that cut and dried. The district attorney in Cumberland County made a different determination when a driver fell asleep and plowed into a family’s vehicle, killing a 9-year-old girl. In that case, the driver has been charged with manslaughter and faces up to 30 years in prison.

The families of the victims in the Augusta crash are angry that the charges against Santerre aren’t more severe. It’s easy to see why. Three people were killed while out enjoying a walk in an area popular among pedestrians. If the allegations are correct, they’d still be alive if Santerre hadn’t gotten into his car that afternoon.

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If Santerre drove while too tired, he wouldn’t be alone. Dangerous driving, whether it’s because the driver is drunk or drowsy, going too fast or not paying attention, is on the rise.

So it’s no surprise that pedestrian deaths are at their highest level in 40 years, with nearly 7,500 people struck and killed by drivers nationwide in 2021.

The deaths will keep climbing unless changes are made. That includes criminal penalties where appropriate – very rarely are drivers charged in fatal crashes, the result of a culture that puts the ease of motor vehicles over the lives and well-being of pedestrians.

Drivers have to be aware of how dangerous roads have become for pedestrians, and if they don’t adjust their behavior, police and prosecutors need the tools to hold them accountable. Law enforcement should send a message to drivers to keep their eyes on the road, go the speed limit, and find another way if they’re too tired or otherwise impaired.

Just as much, we have to redesign streets made to allow drivers to go fast without thinking of others who may be using them. Wide streets, with bad or nonexistent sidewalks, should be a thing of the past. Use traffic cameras, speed humps, elevated crossings and other infrastructure changes to encourage safe driving.

Allow businesses in residential areas, too, so that people don’t have to go far for essentials, and add public transportation, which takes both pedestrians and cars off the streets.

There’s more coming down the road, so to speak. On top of funding for healthier streets, the Biden administration is encouraging the development of technology that can detect driver impairment. Though it’s a few years away, it could make a real difference, just as other car safety improvements have done through the decades.

Until then, we need to use the tools available to make streets safer, and to make drivers more aware of their responsibilities every time they take to the road.

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