Most of the time, when a pedestrian or cyclist is seriously injured or killed by a motor vehicle, we label it “an accident.” As long as the driver isn’t drunk and doesn’t flee the scene, he or she can expect to pay a minor fine, at most, and will suffer no criminal penalties. It doesn’t matter if the driver was texting on their phone, speeding, running a stop sign, turning right-on-red without stopping or other reckless or illegal driving maneuvers. Their liability insurance will cover payouts to the dead or injured and, after answering a few questions from the police, they are often allowed to continue on their way. If you want to murder someone and get away with it, just hit them with your car and say, “it was an accident.”
While there are laws in many states covering “Vehicular Manslaughter,” the penalties are so high, it is very rare for anyone to be charged, unless they’re drunk and/or flee the scene of a crash. In a November 2013 New York Times Opinion Piece, Daniel Duane quotes Ray Thomas, a Portland, Oregon attorney who specializes in bike law: “Jurors identify with drivers.” Convictions carry life-destroying penalties, up to six years in prison… and jurors “just think, well, I could make the same mistake. So they don’t convict.” That’s why police officers and prosecutors don’t bother making arrests. Most cops spend their lives in cars, too, so that’s where their sympathies lie.
In the same piece, Duane also quotes Leah Shahum, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition: “We do not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted, except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run.” …And a lot of cyclists (and pedestrians) get hit and killed in San Francisco.
As a result, many states have passed or are considering “Vulnerable Road User Protection Laws.” These laws create a middle ground between “no penalty” and “Vehicular Manslaughter.” If you seriously injure or kill someone while in violation of a traffic law or while driving carelessly or recklessly, these laws kick into effect. They include more substantial fines (up to $12,500 in Oregon), license suspension, community service, a traffic course and a “gross misdemeanor” charge that actually goes on your record. The hope is that, with some middle ground between no penalty and Vehicular Manslaughter, police and prosecutors will be more likely to charge reckless drivers.
At least nine states have adopted Vulnerable Road User Protection Laws, including Nevada, Tennessee, Washington, Oregon, Illinois, Maryland, Delaware, New York and Hawaii. Even Texas passed one through their legislature but it was vetoed by their governor. Vermont and Connecticut are in process and many other states are talking about them including California and our neighbor, Wisconsin. The laws are part of legal and enforcement campaigns in many states to combat distracted driving and motor vehicle harassment and to require safe distances for motor vehicles passing bicyclists.
In 2013, the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota partnered with the Dakota County Attorney’s office, the Minnesota County Attorney’s Association, Minnesotans for Safe Driving and American Bikers for Awareness, Training and Education (“A.B.A.T.E”) to introduce Vulnerable Road User Protection bills in the Minnesota state legislature. The bills, H.F. 277 and S.F. 206 were introduced by Representative Joe Atkins and Senator Jim Carlson. Unfortunately, House and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairs Michael Paymar and Ron Latz refused to even give the bills a hearing. The Bicycle Alliance and its partners will try again this year. I urge folks who support this idea to contact their state legislators, particularly if they’re on the House or Senate Judiciary Committees.
A lot of cyclists and pedestrians are getting killed and injured. In addition to increased use of cell phones and texting while driving, drivers rarely ever stop for pedestrians at crosswalks or look out for them at intersections, particularly when making turns. Vulnerable Road User Protection Laws by themselves won’t solve this but they are an important part of a “Four-E’s” solution—Evaluation, Engineering, Education, and Enforcement. Cities like New York are setting “Zero pedestrian death” goals for their traffic engineering and law enforcement departments. There’s no reason we can’t do this in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota.