By Michael van Baker
This week City of Seattle attorney Tom Carr and Senate Judiciary Chair Adam Kline (D-37) spoke at a Traffic Justice Summit at City Hall, sponsored by the Cascade Bicycle Club. For the benefit of the non-cycling crowd, what’s at issue is how difficult it is to charge drivers who kill cyclists or pedestrians as a result of a traffic infraction with a commensurate crime.
There is the vehicular manslaughter option, but as this requires proof of recklessness or disregard for the safety of others, it’s not much used, except in cases involving drunk driving. Drunkenness is easier to prove than recklessness, and in any event, carelessness kills someone just as dead. (Talking on a cell phone, for instance, isn’t recklessness.)
As Publicola’s ECB reports, Carr is in favor of “making it a crime, punishable by up to a year in jail, to kill someone while committing a traffic infraction.”
But it goes a little further than that, to include serious injury. Seattlepi.com says the proposed “Vulnerable User” bill would “expand Washington’s negligent driving law to include traffic infractions that result in death or serious injury to a cyclist or pedestrian. Such infractions then would become gross misdemeanors, punishable by up to a year in jail.” At the Summit, interestingly, a good number of the cyclists were willing to trade jail time for a license suspension and a serious attempt at driver education.
Kline said he hasn’t found enough support in the Senate yet, and the city’s 2005 attempt to go it alone in criminalizing running over cyclists fell afoul of the state Court of Appeals. Almost anyone who drives has had a moment of “not seeing” a cyclist or pedestrian, and that “There but for the grace of God” realization tends to curb the indignation that might drive a stiffer penalty.
Meanwhile, we are, as Cliff Mass pointed out the other day, entering our annual period of early darkness and rain that makes it difficult for drivers to see bicyclists, law-abiding and otherwise. More and more people are riding year-round, and the city has gone crazy with sharrows over the summer, as if painting a sign that said “bike-friendly” was enough to ensure bike-friendliness. (I’m not convinced that all that many drivers have any sense what a sharrow is.)
If nothing else, the “Vulnerable User” bill provides a terrific example of what privilege looks like. There aren’t that many instances in life where people will rise up against legislation that punishes you for killing someone because you weren’t paying attention. In comments sections, people break out law library definitions, suggest that it’s not worth having a law because people will just break it, or present a case where the driver isn’t at fault as evidence that there are no cases where the driver is at fault.
It is very hard to square that response with a dead body on the pavement.