Three states already have vulnerable user laws on the books (Oregon’s took effect in 2008, and Delaware’s and New York’s took effect this year), and more states are introducing the bills. Vulnerable roadway user bills mandate stiff fines, loss of license and/or other penalties when the driver of a motorized vehicle severely injures or kills a pedestrian, bicyclist, wheelchair user, motorcyclist or construction worker.
On Monday, April 18, Washington’s State Senate voted 44-2 to accept House amendments to SB 5326, its version of a vulnerable user bill that now goes to Gov. Christine Gregoire for her signature. Cycling and walking advocates in Washington have been trying to pass a vulnerable user bill for three years, but the bill usually ended up dying in committee. This year the Senate and House both passed their own versions of the bill by large margins, then the Senate bill crossed over to receive House approval (with amendments) and now can go to the governor.
“The real crux of this bill is that outcomes matter,” David Hiller of the Cascade Bicycle Club told the Sammamish Patch website. “A DUI with a death is not a DUI with a tragic outcome; it’s vehicular manslaughter. If you have an unsecured load in your vehicle, it’s simply an infraction; but if you kill someone, it’s a felony.”
Possible fines would range from $1,000 to $5,000, and drivers charged under the bill would lose their licenses for 90 days. A driver could reduce the fine to $250 by showing up in court, completing a traffic safety course, and doing 100 hours of community service.
“It will hopefully encourage people to behave more responsibly around populations that are defined as vulnerable,” Hiller told Sammamish Patch, although “we’ll have to watch it closely to see if it has its desired effect.”
New Mexico also had a vulnerable user bill moving through its state legislature, and HB 68 even passed unanimously in the House (68-0). Unfortunately the bill died in a Senate committee and won’t make it to the governor’s desk this year. Even if a bill passes, New Mexico bike/pedestrian advocates worry about a possible veto from Gov. Susana Martinez, who already vetoed SB 124, a bill that would have given New Mexico the nation’s first statewide five-foot passing law (Albuquerque and Los Alamos have local five-foot passing laws) that passed the House and Senate with relative ease.
According to the League of American Bicyclists blog, on April 11 the Maryland State Senate passed HB 363, which creates a new misdemeanor level offense: vehicular negligent homicide. This closes a loophole that had let negligent drivers off with mere traffic fines for killing other road users, while still allowing for felony level charges to be brought in instances of gross negligence such as drunk driving. Guilty drivers will face up to 3 years in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. According to the Baltimore Sun, the House accepted the one Senate amendment to the bill and it has been sent to the governor to be signed.
Vulnerable user bills with varying language also were introduced in the Rhode Island, Connecticut, Nevada, Michigan, Massachusetts and other states. In other states, such as Florida, recent fatal “accidents” involving cars/trucks and cyclists/pedestrians have led to a demand for vulnerable user bills. In February, Dan DeWitt of the St. Petersburg Times wrote this column promoting a vulnerable user law for Florida in response to a recent series of fatal wrecks in the Tampa area (at least 15 cyclists killed since mid-2010). A similar series of deaths in Wisconsin during 2010 prompted Tom Held of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to write this appeal for a Wisconsin vulnerable user bill on Sunday.
In 2009, the Texas Legislature overwhelmingly passed a vulnerable user bill (25-5 in the Senate, 140-5 in the House), but Gov. Rick Perry vetoed it after the legislative session ended and the legislature wasn’t able to get back together to override the veto. Now, several Texas communities are bypassing Perry’s veto by passing localized vulnerable user laws. Earlier this month, Denton became the eighth Texas community to pass a local vulnerable user law.
For those wanting to learn more about vulnerable user laws, Ray Thomas of the Portland law firm, Swanson, Thomas and Coon, played a large role in crafting Oregon’s bill, which has become the model for many states. Thomas’ law firm’s website has a page devoted to vulnerable user laws and also posted a YouTube video. There have been similar laws on the books in many European countries.
One reason for vulnerable user laws is recent research shows the vast majority of car-bicycle wrecks occur at the fault of the driver, not the cyclist (at fault fewer than 10 percent of the time in one study by Charles Komanoff and the Right of Way organization of New York). Cyclists, pedestrians and others are the most vulnerable because there is no protective metal shell around them like there is in a car.