Portland Bicycle Accident Attorney on Vulnerable Road User Laws

Out Of Tragedy, Halting Steps Towards Protecting Vulnerable Users

Gerald Apple was returning home from a ride. One left turn, and he would be in his driveway. But as he began turning, a driver coming up behind him passed Gerald on the left, hit Gerald, and knocked him into a drainage ditch in front of his home. Miraculously, Gerald wasn’t killed, but he suffered a severe brain injury. He lingered for months, but in February of this year, Gerald finally passed.

In her article “Personalizing the Consequences of Bicycle Crashes- The Gerald Apple Story,” Ann Groninger of Bike Law North Carolina recently recounted the heartrending story of how Gerald’s wheelchair-bound wife battled with unsympathetic care providers and an insurance company that refused to pay for Gerald’s health care, while her husband struggled to stay alive. Would Gerald still be with us today, if he had received the care he needed, instead of the cold shoulder? One can only wonder. But one thing is certain—had Gerald’s insurance covered the care he needed, his wife wouldn’t be faced with hundreds of thousands in unpaid medical bills today.

Gerald’s story caught my attention as an Oregon bicycle accident lawyer, because the circumstances of his collision were so similar to a crash that happened here in Oregon in 2007. It was June 9th, a Saturday. Timothy O’Donnell, 66, was on a ride with four other cyclists from the Portland Velo Cycling Club. They were about to make a left turn, with O’Donnell in the lead. O’Donnell had signaled ad begun his turn, when he was struck by a car that attempted to pass him on the left. O’Donnell died at the scene.

The Portland cycling community’s grief soon turned to outrage, when we learned that the driver who killed O’Donnell—Jennifer Knight, then 26—had had her Oregon Driver’s License suspended for failure to appear on a ticket for driving without insurance. With her Oregon license suspended, Knight then moved to Idaho to get an Idaho license. And then, just 6 days before she crashed into O’Donnell, she caused a collision in Idaho by failing to yield to another vehicle, and was cited by investigators for inattentiveness. The day she crashed into O’Donnell, Knight, now returned to Oregon, was driving on a still-suspended Oregon license.

And yet despite the circumstances, the driver was facing a maximum fine of $1,142. The prosecutors charged her with driving with a suspended license, careless driving, and passing in a no passing zone. Knight pleaded “no contest” to the charges, and mailed in her fine in monthly installments, all without ever having appeared before a judge. But for taking O’Donnell’s life, there would be no charges filed. Knight wouldn’t pay one penny, and wouldn’t serve one minute in jail, for carelessly taking O’Donnell’s life. Yet another dangerous driver had escaped appropriate charges and penalties for taking a human life.

But if there was a silver lining in this cloud, it was what O’Donnell’s untimely passing led to. Bicycle safety legislation had recently been introduced in the Oregon Senate, and the Bicycle Transportation Alliance had been working tirelessly to gather the necessary support for this bill. One more vote was needed to get it through the Senate. With Tim O’Donnell’s passing at the hands of a dangerous driver fresh on everybody’s minds, and with the strong and unceasing lobbying support of Tim’s widow, Mary, the bill gained the necessary support, and went on to become Oregon’s Vulnerable User Law—the first law of its kind in the nation.

Under the then new law, careless drivers who killed or seriously injured a “vulnerable user” (a class of roadway users that includes not only cyclists, but pedestrians, equestrians, and farm vehicle operators) would be subject to completing a traffic safety course, performing between 100 and 200 hours of community service, paying a fine of up to $12,500, and having their license suspended. No longer would drivers who take a life face nothing more than a paltry fine. No longer would a driver be able to mail it in, without even having to go to court and face a judge.

But while Oregon cyclists were glad to have the new law on the books, they also realized its serious limitations. While the law imposes an enhanced fine of up to $12,500, a careless driver can completely avoid the enhanced fine by completing the traffic safety course and community service. So really, what the Vulnerable User law is saying is that a careless driver who seriously injures or kills a vulnerable user must complete a traffic safety course, community service, and must have their license suspended. It’s not a bad law, but it’s not nearly as strong a deterrent to careless driving as it might appear at first glance.

And yet even Oregon’s lukewarm Vulnerable User law is “too tough” for some state legislatures. Recently, legislators in my old home state of Wisconsin passed a thoroughly watered down version of a Vulnerable User law, completely removing the enhanced penalty of $10,000 and a 9-month jail term from the law before they would even vote on it. They apparently didn’t want to crack down too hard on careless drivers who kill.

But then again, neither does the Oregon Legislature. Shortly after Oregon’s Vulnerable User law was passed, bicycle advocates, fully aware of its shortcomings, pushed to get a vehicular homicide bill through the state legislature. The vehicular homicide bill failed in 2009. Today, Oregon remains one of four states with no vehicular homicide law on the books—and that needs to change.


Oct 01, 2015

He thought he got away with it. When the driver of an Infiniti SUV struck a Chicago bicyclist earlier this year, fracturing his collar bone, he chose to flee.  What he did not count on was the bicyclist, a 35 year old Chicago pastry chef, having the wherewithal to snap a photo of his license […]

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Sep 17, 2015

Last week another Iowa cyclist was killed by a hit-and-run driver. At around 6:00am Dave Ryder was struck by Stephanie Kenealy on 35th Avenue.  Dave was coming home from the casinos.  He was riding a road bike with drop handlebars.  The bicycle was equipped with at least a rear light, and Ryder was wearing a […]

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Sep 15, 2015

From Detroit we continued west to Chicago — “The Windy City,” “The Second City,” or maybe just “Bike City.” We rolled in to town through a torrential downpour. And arrived at Ancien Cycles on North Milwaukee Avenue (aka The Hipster Highway). While Timmy was navigating the streets and looking for parking, Anne Barnes (the fit guru […]

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Sep 08, 2015

The Des Moines Register is publishing a series of articles on bicycling in Iowa. My understanding is that they had planned the series, but the highly publicized hit-and run-death of Gregary “Wade” Franck brought bicycling safety issues to the forefront of many minds in Iowa.The current article is titled, “Why does Iowa have so many […]

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Sep 08, 2015

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Sep 07, 2015

Having rolled out of Charlotte at the end of the party, we made our way closer to DC and “slept” east of Durham for a few hours. Up early and out the door after a banana break we headed toward Richmond. At Richmond we picked up Bike Law Tom and switched drivers. Bob took the […]

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Sep 06, 2015

Our kick-off party was Friday, September 4th in Charlotte.  Who knew that the Queen City was one of the coolest bike-to-breweries city in the nation?!  Well, the locals know it very well. We arrived in the Sprinter at Triple C Brewing right on time, greeted by a pumped up mob of bike folks, ready for […]

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Sep 03, 2015

An irresponsible piece of journalism about biking injuries and deaths was published yesterday by National Public Radio under the headline, As More Adults Pedal, Their Biking Injuries and Deaths Spike, Too. The story noted the fact that the number of people biking regularly has substantially increased over the past several years, while spotlighting a “striking” […]

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Aug 18, 2015

September 4 – 19, 2015.  The Bike Law National Tour. For two weeks, Bob, Timmy, and I are loading up the cargo bikes in our Sprinter van and visiting (and picking up) Bike Law lawyers from Charleston to Denver and back.  In each city, we are throwing a party, visiting shops, buying beer, joining rides […]

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Aug 17, 2015

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Aug 12, 2015

So a driver just cut you off, flipped you off, or otherwise harassed you. It’s happened to all of us. I have had a blaring horn scare me and nearly cause me to crash. I would have loved to pull the minivan driver from his seat and give him a piece of my mind or […]

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Aug 12, 2015

Bike Law Georgia has entered a strategic partnership with Georgia Bikes to be a Presenting Sponsor for the 6th Annual Georgia Bike Summit in November 2015.   The Bike Summit will be in Milledgeville and starts with a First Friday Street party, followed by a day of workshops, discussion and speakers all revolving about ways to […]

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