02

Blog

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.

Comments

Bruce Hagen Jul 17, 2018

On July 11, 2018, a very experienced rider and friend to many in the Rockdale County area, Albert “Ab” Roesel, was killed while out on a rural road doing a ride that he no doubt had done many times before.  Ab was 75 years old.   The police investigation concluded that Ab had been headed Southbound, […]

Read More
Brendan Kevenides Jun 04, 2018

At sea a boat under power must give way to a more vulnerable craft.  The law requires that a power driven vessel give way to a sailing vessel.  A sail boat must give way to a craft engaged in fishing. These simple rules are consistent with the maxim that with greater power comes greater responsibility. […]

Read More
Commuter Bike
Bruce Hagen May 29, 2018

Recently, my wife and I moved into a new home that’s closer to my office, which has allowed me to start commuting by bike.  I rode my bike to and from my office 4 consecutive days before my schedule forced me back into the car. My hope and plan is to commute by bike at […]

Read More
Pat Brown May 10, 2018

Strength, ambition, and courage are just a few words that come to mind when we think of Anthony Lue.  Growing up, Anthony enjoyed playing competitive sports such as baseball, volleyball, basketball and mountain biking, but his true passion was discovered on his high school track.    After winning gold for 100m hurdles at the provincial championships […]

Read More
Lauri Boxer-Macomber Apr 30, 2018

Following a horrific bicycle crash in 2016, Dr. Michael Rifkin has become a new type of bicycling advocate — one who is deeply committed to ending distracted driving. Read his op-ed on Making Distracted Driving in Maine Taboo here. Dr. Rifkin’s piece reminds us that we can be distracted by our phones and other electronic devices even […]

Read More
Brian Weiss Apr 26, 2018

On November 21, 2017, I saw a TV news story about how the Broomfield District Attorney’s Office was routinely offering lax plea deals to drivers that injure cyclists.  In bicycle crash cases with injuries, the DA was offering plead deals to “broken headlight” or “defective vehicle” charges. A “defective vehicle” sentence is one of the […]

Read More
Atlanta's Bike Czar
Bruce Hagen Apr 19, 2018

Who is looking for a great job in a dynamic city with a great opportunity to make bicycle advocacy not just a passion, but a full time, rewarding and well-paying job?   The City of Atlanta is in search of a a new Chief Bicycle Officer to replace the outgoing CBO, Superstar Becky Katz, who after […]

Read More
Joe Piscitello Apr 04, 2018

Piscitello Law – Bike Law PA is pleased to share highlights from the third annual Vision Zero conference, held March 17 in West Philadelphia.  The event was hosted by Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition and opening remarks by the Executive Director Sarah Clark Stuart encouraged 250 participants to “listen, learn and be inspired….”   Mayor James Kenney […]

Read More
Lauri Boxer-Macomber Apr 03, 2018

The first issue is that many bicycle crashes are not being reported into the State of Maine Crash Database, which leads to incomplete and inaccurate state-wide crash reporting data and arguably also leads to uninformed priority setting and budgetary decisions.  The crashes that are unreported and/or underreported on a state level are sometimes, but not […]

Read More
Lauri Boxer-Macomber Mar 25, 2018

Foundational Principles Bicycles are Traffic and Belong on Maine’s Roadways In Maine, bicycle riders are included within the definition of “traffic” and should be treated as part of Maine’s traffic system.  See 29-A M.R.S.A. § 101 (82).   Rights and Responsibilities In general, a person riding a bicycle in Maine has all of the rights […]

Read More
Joe Piscitello Mar 20, 2018

Vision Zero (VZ) is multi-nation initiative with a guiding principle that death and serious injury should not be an acceptable outcome of transportation.  Vision Zero plans often draw attention to flaws within the transportation system such as dangerous traffic patterns, speeding and a lack of sufficient protected bike/pedestrian lanes.  VZ action plans utilize data to […]

Read More
Danny Feldman Mar 15, 2018

I will not pretend to speak for all cyclists, but I feel pretty confident in saying that being passed by cars on the road is a primary area of concern. Most of the time there is no problem and the vehicle passes safely. Nevertheless, I personally have been “buzzed” more times than I wish were […]

Read More
Load More