Andy Singer blogged in 2014 about Vulnerable Road User Protection Laws, laws aimed at enhancing the penalties for careless driving. In 2015, Minnesota finally passed its version, campaigned for by the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota and authored by Sen. Ron Latz (D) and Representative Tony Cornish (R).
The new law increased the penalty for causing fatality or great bodily harm to another person while committing a reckless driving offense. The law made it a gross misdemeanor with up to 1 year in jail and a $3,000 fine. I’m glad we increased the penalty, though it angers me that it took multiple years to get it passed. But to me, a non-lawyer, this still feels like we are under-protecting vulnerable road users even with this. I’m not a lawyer, but proving intent in a criminal court of law is a big step when drivers have driven through crowds on camera with not much more than a shrug. I’m told I’m a pessimist.
Behavior That Is Already Illegal
Plus, there is a very wide spectrum of illegal behavior lower than causing fatalities or great bodily harm that people on bikes deal with every day. Physical assaults or attempted physical assaults are already crimes, a driver swerving into a people on bikes and knocking them down is already a crime.
To list more things already crimes: threatening imminent injury to a people on bikes, throwing objects at people using bikes, distracting or attempting to distract people using bikes, forcing or attempting to force a person on a bike off a street for purposes unrelated to safety. All illegal.
Because they are crimes it means calling the police, giving statements, gathering evidence, finding witnesses, etc. For many reasons going through these motions have meant driver-crimes never get reported, and when it does get reported promptly withers away for lack of evidence or witnesses. It might get tallied up and counted for some future street safety redesign if certain council members mental math weighing human safety vs. driver convenience comes down on the human safety side. So there’s that.
Bicyclist Anti-Harassment Ordinances
In 2011, the city of Los Angeles tried something new. The city unanimously passed an ordinance that took those existing crimes, and also made them civil offenses. Called a Bicyclist Anti-Harassment Ordinance [pdf], it grants people on bikes who are victim to the kinds of harassments already illegal ways to seek civil remedies.
Vulnerable Road User Laws are commonly adopted at a state level. But in California, a few cities have followed Los Angeles’ lead and adopted ordinances giving people on bikes who are targets of behaviors like intentional threats, assaults, or such behavior that endangers a civil remedy.
Christopher Kidd, formerly an author at the Los Angeles Department of Transportation Bike Blog, moved to the East Bay and helped get the Berkeley ordinance passed said this about the ordinances.
“As with the other two Bicyclist Anti-Harassment laws, this one does not create any new crimes. It simply takes actions that are already illegal under the criminal code and makes them explicitly eligible under the civil code as well.”
“There are no rights being downtrodden, there is no nanny-stating going on. Quite the opposite, this empowers people to face assault and harassment on their own rather than having to wait for the government (law enforcement) to do it for them.”
“It’s so gratifying to see the ordinance I worked on in LA making inroads in the bay area. Providing bicyclists with the tools to defend themselves against actions that are already illegal, while letting them bypass a criminal court system that is often overburdened and historically unsympathetic to bicyclists’ travails, is really a win-win for everyone”
I don’t know if Minnesota cities or counties can pass ordinances like this, giving people who are on bikes and victims of illegal behaviors a civil course of remedy without shutting down possible criminal cases as well. But Bicyclist Anti-Harassment Laws are another tool in the toolbox to make streets safer for people. It is one that empowers people who bike to take things into their own hands and not have to wait for a criminal system seemingly historically indifferent to people on bikes.