Senate bill targets negligent drivers
Lawmakers are considering tougher penalties for drivers whose negligence causes serious injury or kills pedestrians and bicyclists.
By Lillian Tucker
Currently, if a driver is distracted and forgets to yield to a cyclist, and the cyclist is killed, the only likely consequence is a traffic infraction. More severe charges are brought only if a criminal act, such as driving under the influence, is involved.
The Vulnerable Users Bill, Senate Bill 5838, seeks to change the law without criminalizing the action. In cases when a "vulnerable user" — pedestrians, cyclists or skateboarders — is substantially harmed or killed by a driver’s failure to exercise "ordinary care," drivers would still face a traffic infraction, but the punishment would be more substantial.
In addition to being subject to a $250 fine for negligent driving in the second degree, the driver would be required to appear in court, complete a traffic-safety course and perform up to 100 hours of community service that relates to driver improvement and traffic safety. In lieu of these penalties the driver would pay a fine of up to $5,000 and lose his or her license for 90 days.
"There are cases where a driver is not filled with criminal intent but truly does cause death or serious injury to a biker, to a walker," state Sen. Joe McDermott, D-West Seattle, a sponsor of the bill, said at Tuesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing.
Citizens’ request and headlines, McDermott said, compelled him to try to put in place an appropriate penalty, on the infraction level, that would provide justice for victims and their families.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than two- thirds of bicyclist fatalities occur in urban areas. And in the city of Seattle, which estimates that on an average weekday 4,000 to 8,000 people cycle to work or school, there is an increased focus on safety.
Kevin Black, a cyclist who shared his love for the sport with his daughters, was fatally injured last February during his morning ride to work.
As Black made his way down 24th Avenue Northwest in Ballard, he was struck by a van.
His former spouse, Michele Black, attended Tuesday’s hearing on SB 5838 and hopes lawmakers will pass it.
In an e-mail to The Seattle Times, Black said she was "shocked" that the van driver only faced traffic tickets.
"His death was not factored into the final equation because there is no law that it falls under," Black said in the e-mail. "The driver as of now gets to just disappear back into their life as if they did nothing wrong — get a ticket in the mail and send in a check."
David Hiller, advocacy director for Cascade Bicycle Club, has worked extensively on SB 5838 and with victims and their families.
In an interview, he said that a required court appearance is important. "There’s got to be some opportunity to say ’I’m sorry.’ "
Concerns were raised at Tuesday’s hearing that the bill, with its education and community-service requirements that must be verified, would clog up the courts.
But John Schochet from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office said this is not the case. A report prepared by the office indicated that if enacted, SB 5838 would increase the number of traffic-infraction hearings statewide by 0.02 percent.
"Our view is that we don’t want to recriminalize," Schochet said in an interview. Most driving offenses were decriminalized more than 30 years ago, he said. "But we thought that the base traffic ticket with no mandatory court appearance was not really enough."
"Think about the positive effect that sentencing this driver to community-service in a trauma center might have," said Paul David, of Kirkland, who was severely injured in 2008. He spent a week in an induced coma after being hit by a truck while riding his bike. "They need to understand and to remember that they are operating machines that have power to take lives, or to profoundly alter them."
A similar bill was proposed last year but stalled in a 4-4 split in the Senate Judiciary Committee.