California Looking Once Again Considers a Vulnerable Road User Law

Several months ago I blogged about the issue of whether vulnerable road user laws would help protect bicyclists in California.  The streets haven’t become any safer and it seems like I can rarely walk the dog anymore without a driver making a quick right or left turn cutting us off in an intersection.

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 “vulnerable road users.” Recently, Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) introduced new legislation for a vulnerable road user law for California, Assembly Bill 2398 (AB 2398). AB 2398 would stack an additional offense if a traffic violation punishable as an infraction proximately causes  a “vulnerable road user” bodily injury or great bodily injury. Base fines could range from $145 to $1000, with additional court fees and other fees raising the amount a convicted person would pay significantly more (up to four times). It would also assess a point against the driver’s license. Legislation often sees significant amendment through the legislative process, so even assuming AB 2398 passes, it could change significantly by then.

Model legislation proposed by the League of American Bicyclists differs slightly. Instead of imposing an additional punishment for violating a traffic law, it would punish “a person who operates motor vehicle in a careless or distracted manner and causes serious physical injury or death to a vulnerable road user.” It also proposes different penalties, including a 6-month license suspension and a fine of up to $2,000, up to 30 days in jail, participation in a motor vehicle accident prevention course, or performing up to 200 hours of community service. The model legislation also requires drivers to attend their hearing, rather than simply pleading no contest and paying their fine through the mail (or more so today over the Internet).

Oregon, who has taken a lead in passing and implementing vulnerable road user laws, has had a vulnerable road user law for several years. Like AB 2398, Oregon’s law enhances penalties associated with careless driving a convicted person kills or injures a vulnerable road user. Unlike AB 2398, however, Oregon law requires a traffic safety course, 100 to 200 hours of community service, paying a fine of up to $12,500, and a license suspension of up to one year. The license suspension and fine can be waived upon completing the traffic safety course and community service. Oregon has not implemented its vulnerable road user law without criticism, as there have been instances in which drivers who could have been prosecuted under the law were not.

An immediately striking difference between AB 2398, the League of American Bicyclist’s model legislation, and Oregon’s law is that Calfornia’s potential fines are much lower and there are no requirements for community service or for a traffic safety course (but seriously, traffic school is a joke anyway). Sometimes a large fine deters enforcement and conviction, especially when the fine may be viewed as excessive. The City of Davis, for example, lowered the fine for bicyclists who failed to stop and stop signs and were first time offenders in order to encourage greater enforcement. AB 2398’s are nowhere near so large as to encourage drivers to pay more attention to cyclists, especially when additional penalty can be as low as $145. Oregon has a good model with a strong penalty that can be waived through community service and education. While AB 2398 is a step in the right direction and while the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, a California vulnerable road user law would need a much stronger penalty in order to encourage drivers to pay more attention and drive more safely near cyclists.

If you want to know more about vulnerable road user laws or about AB 2398, contact me, the California Bicycle Coalition, or you local bicycle advocacy organization.

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