Editorial: Time to get tough on tossing lit cigarettes

PAUL SQUIRE FILE PHOTO | The Manorville wildfire as seen from Exit 69 of the Long Island Expressway last Monday.

Every smoker seems to do it. And why not? They don’t want their cars to smell that much worse by trashing cigars or cigarette butts in their on-board ashtrays, so tossing butts out the window seems like a perfect solution. It’s not trash if it’s biodegradable, right? And the cops don’t seem to care.

This way of thinking has to stop, either through a major public awareness campaign or stiffer penalties when it comes to litter that can cause extensive property damage or even claim lives.

Stiffer penalties would likely be more effective — and cheaper.

While it hasn’t been proven that smouldering cigarette butts tossed to the ground by motorists — or anyone else for that matter — caused the rash of brush fires that began in early April, we all have our suspicions, because we see lit cigarettes fly through the air all the time while we’re traveling area roadways. And when fires spark just off the Long Island Expressway, as they did Tuesday afternoon, or in center medians, as they did Tuesday night on County Road 105 — dragging Riverhead firefighters away from their annual swearing-in ceremonies — tossed butts seem to be the most logical culprit.

Article 33, Section 1220, of New York State Vehicle and Traffic Law deals with tossing litter from vehicles. Yet there’s no mention of lit or combustible materials anywhere in the Vehicle and Traffic Law index. The current law on litter reads “(a) That no person shall throw, dump, deposit or place, or cause to be thrown, dumped … any refuse, trash, garbage, rubbish, litter or any nauseous or offensive matter …” It further states that “a violation of this section shall be punishable by a fine not to exceed two hundred fifty dollars.” It’s $500 for a second offense.

Since Suffolk County has now been the site of two of the largest wildfires in state history, it’s appropriate that any proposed legislative changes come from our local representatives in Albany. To make it easier for them, here’s some suggested legislative language:

“No operator or passenger in any motor vehicle shall knowingly throw or dump, or permit or cause to be thrown or dumped, outside that vehicle any ignited items, including cigars, cigarettes or other such devices or materials that contain already lit burning agents known to be responsible for fires. Any violation of the provisions of this paragraph shall constitute a misdemeanor and be punishable by imprisonment of not more than fifteen months or a fine of not less than five hundred dollars nor more than one thousand dollars, or both such fine and imprisonment.

“A second conviction within twelve months of a violation of this section shall be punishable by imprisonment of up to twenty-four months or a fine of not less than one thousand dollars nor more than fifteen hundred dollars, or both such fine and imprisonment.”

Given the potential consequences of such actions, these penalties hardly seem harsh.