There’s good news out of New York and Delaware this month, as the governors of those states signed legislation creating “Vulnerable User” laws to protect pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchairs and other users of our road system that don’t have a metal cage surrounding them as they travel at high speeds.
New York Gov. David Paterson on Aug. 13 signed what locally is called “Hayley and Diego’s Law,” which honors Hayley Ng and Diego Martinez, two young children who were killed when an idling and unattended van slipped into gear and rolled backward into a group of pre-school children in New York City’s Chinatown. The law sets up an intermediate charge — a traffic violation called careless driving — which prosecutors can use in cases where a conviction on a charge of criminal negligence or recklessness seems unlikely.
Paterson signed a second law on Aug. 13 that should also keep dangerous drivers off the road. Under Elle’s Law (named after Elle Vanderberghe, 3 years old at the time, who suffered serious brain injuries when a motorist backed up through a crosswalk on 82nd Street to grab an open parking space), any driver who causes serious physical injury to another person while committing a traffic violation will automatically have his or her license suspended for a period of six months by the DMV. Drivers who have been involved in any similar incidents within the previous five years will have their licenses suspended for a full year.
A day earlier, Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signed SB269, the state’s first vulnerable users law. The bill, modeled after an Oregon law, enhances the penalty for drivers convicted of careless or inattentive drivers who cause serious physical injury to cyclists, pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. The new law includes sentencing guidelines, such as completion of a traffic safety course, perform up to 100 hours of community service related to driver improvement and providing public education on traffic safety, fines up to $550 and suspension of driving privileges.
These two new vulnerable user laws make Delaware and New York the third and fourth states to pass these laws that protect the most vulnerable users of our roads. Oregon was the first state to pass such a law, which is modeled after similar laws in the Netherlands, Denmark and other countries. Texas passed a similar law last year only to have it vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. Several other states, including Washington, Virginia and California, are debating similar bills.
The Seattle-based site Publicola on Aug. 20 made a good case about why all states need vulnerable user laws, and an excerpt is quoted below. Additional information about vulnerable user laws was in this previous post on this site.
It’s shameful that our state legislators could not pass the vulnerable users bill last session. The bill, introduced by Seattle Sen. Joe McDermott (D-34), would have imposed stricter penalties on negligent drivers who kill or seriously injure vulnerable roadway users such as bicyclists and pedestrians. Unfortunately, the bill never even made it to a vote.
Of course, there are times when drivers are not to blame. People are people and prone to doing stupid things regardless of whether they’re traveling by bike, foot, or car. The goal of the law is not to place an unfair burden on drivers. It won’t punish a driver who accidentally hits a biker who runs a red light or a pedestrian who absentmindedly steps out into the street. It will, however, create an appropriately stringent punishment that matches the level of responsibility required to drive a fast, high-powered, 2,000-pound metal vehicle around vulnerable roadway users (pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users) who have just as much legal right to use the road as drivers do. If a driver makes the choice to take his or her eyes off the road to answer the phone, fiddle with the radio, or reach for cigarettes maims or kills someone, “I didn’t see them” should not absolve them of responsibility.
Opponents of the vulnerable users law argue that there are already negligent driving laws in place to punish drivers who maim and kill bicyclists and pedestrians. But drivers go unpunished often enough to justify more specific laws that carry the sort of weighty penalties that might make people reconsider their driving habits.
How vulnerable are pedestrians and cyclists? The Greater Greater Washington site recently began plotting on a map the locations of pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by cars, and the site posts a weekly update so residents can get a better handle on the carnage. During the week ending Aug. 29, there were 13 pedestrians and four cyclists hit by cars in the downtown Washington, D.C., area.
In many cases when a pedestrian or cyclist is struck by a car, the blame tends to be directed at the vulnerable user or you get excuses from the driver like “he came out of nowhere, I didn’t see him.” While that is true in some cases, a Toronto physician, Dr. Chris Cavacuiti, recently published a study that showed that in the vast majority of cases the car is at fault in a car-bike collision and not the cyclist. Dr. Cavacuiti’s findings showed the cyclist was at fault in less than 10 percent of these wrecks.
Even though cars are at fault in the vast majority of car-bike or car-pedestrian crashes, many prosecutors fail to charge the driver, and in some cases the driver doesn’t even receive a simple traffic ticket. That can leave the victims and/or their family’s feeling violated. A good example of this frustration can be found in this post on Florida’s SWFBUD blog by cyclist Ed Collins, whose father LeRoy Collins was struck and killed by a lady driving an SUV on July 29 while riding his bike in Tampa. According to Ed Collins, the lady who killed his father will have no points on her driving license and no jump in insurance because she was not charged.
It’s so rare to see a driver charged when they hit a pedestrian or cyclist (unless the driver was drunk or driving very recklessly) that is was kind of a surprise to see a grand jury in Fairbanks last week bring charges of manslaughter against a 55-year-old driver who allegedly ran a red light and killed a 14-year-old cyclist. If a vulnerable user law can make drivers have to think about the consequences of their careless driving, maybe they will become safer drivers.