What is a ‘Vulnerable Roadway User’ Law?
The general idea is to create a subset of road users who are somehow more vulnerable than those inside of enclosed motor vehicle; this usually would include pedestrians and bicyclists, and might include motorcyclists, animal riders, animal drawn conveyances, and so forth. If someone in this subset is harmed by the negligent actions of a motorist, then that motorist is subject to enhanced penalties.
This page from the Cascade Bike Club (the state of Washington) describes it pretty well. The idea of making it a legislative priority is pretty popular. E.g.: Virgina Bicycling Federation. LACBC (California). Illinois. New York. Rhode Island. So it is a bit of a trend — and much like the Safe Passing Distance Laws were/are a trend, there isn’t any evidence one way or another that show these laws are effective.
Oregon has had a vulnerable road user law since 2007 (effective date Jan 1,2008) — making it the first such law in the US. Bike lawyer Ray Thomas was instrumental in passage. He offers interesting and useful political legislative considerations here. Oregon’s enhance penalties are non-criminal, and involve various trade offs between a fine, license suspension, or community service. The penalty is keyed to the commission of a careless driving offense that results in a serious injury or death.
What have been the results? It’s way to early to tell anything with crash stats (I originally wrote this article several years ago; perhaps in 2010?) — it ultimately might be impossible to discern. But one does wonder what became of prosecutions under this law?? There were, for example, 104 traffic deaths of bicyclist and ped in 2008 and 2009, the last full year of NHTSA stats available. (51+35 peds, 10+8 cyclists, 2008 and 2009 respectively). And there must have been at least several hundred of serious injuries. What became of these cases? How many vulnerable users’ prosecutions; any license suspensions, etc? I can’t find any outcomes.
As I am updating this now in late 2013, Oregon’s law has been on the books for just shy of six years; I have yet to see more than a tiny handful of mentions of this law (here is one involving a bicyclist hit by a garbage truck; I can’t even find the outcome, the article just says the driver will be charged). There have been now at least many hundreds (more reasonably a couple of thousand — it is some fraction of fatal or seriously injured bicyclist or pedestrian) of potential cases; where are the charges? (that fraction tends to hover around 50%).
Legislative effort in state of WA passed a vulnerable user’s law in the spring 2011 (but doesn’t become effective until June 1, 2012). As of March, a similar bill had passed both houses. See kiptasun article, which also has lots of links. HB1339 passed March 2, 2011; and SB5326 passed the week before. The bill is being pushed by the widow of bicyclist James “Mike” McClurkan. Here is a good graphic representation of “how a bill becomes law” in WA (but is very similar everywhere); Several articles from the Cascade Bicycle Club have lots of rich detail.
The Texas Experience 2005-2009
San Antonio Metro Columnist Veronica Flores writes of political problems with such legislation: “For eight years, bicycling advocates worked to get such legislation passed, changing the proposal as necessary to gain widespread support… In vetoing the bill, Perry cited penalties that he said already exist when a motorist is at fault for causing a collision, “whether it is against a ‘vulnerable user’ or not.”
But here is some more detail on the actual sausage-making process… Saying that the proposal was changed as necessary to gain widespread support is a nice way to put it. NTVC (North Texas Vehicular Cyclist) puts it more bluntly “Bills introduced this session sought to include various pedestrian groups among legitimate road users in an effort to garner support among otherwise indifferent legislators” — in other words, a little horse trading that would, in NTVC’s view, would water-down cyclist’s rights.
In more recent news, the CITY of El Paso pass their own version, Ordinance number 017466.
New York 2010
New York state recently got two new laws, the first dubbed Hayley and Diego’s Law (A0791) is a vulnerable user’s law. The second, Elle’s law (A10617), stiffens penalties including mandatory license suspension for any motor vehicle driver who KSIs (kills or seriously injures) anyone. More at streetsblog.org.
The LAB weighs in (early 2013 timeframe)
LAB weighs in in support of VRU (Vulnerable Roadway User) laws. blog.bikeleague.org/blog/2013/03/bike-law-university-vulnerable-road-user-laws-2/
Why I do not support Vulnerable User Legislation
As an aside – I don’t really see it happening in our current political climate.
The foundation for the supposed need seems to be based on a false premise. That being that when cyclists (or peds) are killed, the justice system has some sort of bias that prevents the responsible party from being appropriately punished.
This has not been my experience; at least in the cases of cyclist fatalities. That is to say, a negligent motorist who kills a cyclist is treated the same as a negligent motorist who kills another motorist.
The general rule involves whether or not the negligent driver is impaired: impaired = criminal charges; not impaired means no criminal charges. It is independent of the mode of transportation of the victim.
And in flagrant cases, charges are brought against reckless drivers who cause fatalities. See e.g. the driver who killed Drake Okusako, who was charged with manslaughter. Or the driver who killed Bob Walmsley (neg hom and leaving the scene).
What should be done
I support any sort of stiffening of penalties for negligent drivers who kill / injure anyone. Arizona is one of the few states that does not have a vehicular homicide law (more here), so perhaps that would be helpful. The general idea is that a special/another type of homicide is created; generally with relatively minor criminal penalties. So it would be similar to negligent homicide, a class 4 felony; but with a different standard of conduct. Neg Hom requires the prosecutor to prove the defendant was “criminally negligent”.
More tangibly — Arizona already has a criminal misdemeanor law 28-672. Causing serious physical injury or death by a moving violation. There are only two problems with it, 1) getting (in this case typically city) prosecutors to use it — but that would be the same problem with a new VUL law, and 2) the law itself has a discrete list of infractions. The answer is to simply do away with the list of infractions and make it any moving violation. It would also be good to open up the ranges for the amount of time driver’s licenses get suspended — shamefully, the law has no mandatory minimum suspension period. This law has been tweaked several times in recent past, so there is at least some hope it could be tweaked again.
some context: Bicyclist’s trip represent about 2% of traffic (citation?); In Arizona there were 106,767 crashes between all types of traffic in 2009, of those 1,995 were bicylist crashes, representing 1.95% of all crashes. Source: Motor Vehicle Crash Facts for the state of Arizona (ADOT)
Here is Mionske’s take on vulnerable user legislation.