A recent editorial in the New York Times, Is it O.K. to Kill Cyclists?, got a lot of attention. In general, the editorial argues that criminal penalties for traffic violations that injure or kill cyclists are rarely imposed and, even when they are imposed, are insufficient to encourage safe and attentive driving. The article alleges that laws are not inadequately enforced, that violators are infrequently prosecuted, and that juries do not impose sufficiently harsh penalties, because the public at large consists of drivers who view accidents with bikes in much the same way they view accidents with cars – things that just happen that are usually minor, even though accidents between cars and cyclists are often serious as far as cyclists are concerned. The editorial cites vulnerable road user (VRU) laws, and the law in Oregon in particular, as a sign of progress in holding drivers responsible for injuring cyclists.
Vulnerable road user laws seek to encourage safer and more aware drivers by imposing significantly stronger penalties for traffic violations that injure or harm persons who are defined as VRUs. No longer can a driver just pay a (relatively) nominal fine, go to traffic school, and keep the points of his or her license. Model legislation drafted by the League of American Bicyclists would impose significantly higher penalties on drivers who, as a result of careless or distracted driving, cause harm or injury to VRUs. The model legislation’s definition of VRUs include pedestrians, people riding animals, and persons operating items such as bikes, motorcycles, skateboards, wheelchairs (including motorized wheelchairs), and in-line skates within the definition of “vulnerable road user.” Enhanced penalties in the model legislation include a six-month license suspension, in addition to a monetary fine of at least $2,000, up to 30 days in jail, and other penalties. The driver must also attend a hearing, as opposed to just paying a fine over the Internet, and the injured road user will have an opportunity to confront the driver. The purpose of VRU laws is to impose a penalty large enough to encourage safer and more aware driving. It does not make the injured VRU whole by requiring the driver to pay for injuries and property damage, because that is the job of insurance. A conviction for violating a VRU will likely make any insurance claim even more of a slam-dunk than a regulator traffic violation.
So far, Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have adopted vulnerable road user laws, but the fact of the matter, however, is that larger penalties are no good if they go unenforced. Even in Oregon, that state that adopted the first VRU law, enforcement appears far less frequent than VRU injuries caused by motor vehicles, because law enforcement and/or prosecutors may feel they lack sufficient evidence to prove a driver was careless or distracted. This leaves VRUs no better off than without there VRU law. A stronger, more protective VRU law may need to more precisely define “carelessness” or simply state that the driver’s violation of traffic law resulted in injury to a VRU. Even then, whether careless or distracted driving actually caused an accident will remain a potential defense for drivers.
With or without a VRU law, support from local government and law enforcement is critical. Here in Sacramento, following a spate of deaths over the summer, the California Highway Patrol issues dozens of citations to drivers and cyclists alike during a decoy operation on November 2. Their goal was to get the word out to everyone to proceed more safely. With or without a VRU, strong support from law enforcement is indispensable for the safety of both pedestrians and cyclists.