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

Ann Groninger Jan 16, 2019

There is nothing good about losing a beloved husband, father and member of the community. Eugene (Gene) Rotberg will never be replaced; everyone who knew him has a hole in his or her heart because of Gene’s absence. Of course, the loss to his wife, two grown children and grandchildren is immeasurable. But sometimes new […]

Read More
Bryan Waldman Jan 04, 2019

To put it mildly, legislation to make Michigan a better and safer place for bicyclists has never been a priority for Michigan lawmakers. Those who have worked to advance bicycle laws have proposed common sense legislation for years. While a minority of state lawmakers seemed sympathetic to our cause, they were frank in telling us […]

Read More
Rachael Maney Nov 28, 2018

I asked my 7 year old son, Will, to draw me a picture of each of these things: life with cars; life with electric cars; life with autonomous cars; they all looked the same. But the fourth picture- life in a modern, forward thinking, and environmentally, economically, and socially responsible place- looked very different. Even […]

Read More
Matt Johnson Nov 06, 2018

We were somewhere around Denison on the edge of the corn fields when the Eurostyle Chamois Butter began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded, maybe we should stop at a watering station…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us, and the road was full of […]

Read More
Peter Wilborn Oct 02, 2018

October is a big month in the triathlon world, with the Kona Ironman World Championships on the 13th. So it is good news that Triathlete Magazine chose its October issue to focus on bicycle safety and advocacy. Bike Law Director (and our resident triathlete) Rachael Maney was featured and interviewed in the piece. She shared […]

Read More
Peter Wilborn Sep 28, 2018

Chicago has become one of the nation’s top cycling cities, but along with more has come an increase in dooring crashes. A Chicago news channel has covered the issue and interviewed attorney Brendan Kevenides, Bike Law’s legal resource in Illinois. Brendan explained the growing risk to cyclists and how the “Dutch Reach” can help.  The […]

Read More
Amy Benner Johnson Sep 21, 2018

Drivers are coming within less than 1.5 feet of cyclists on the road in Knoxville with alarming regularity. Drivers are coming within less than two feet of cyclists on the road in Knoxville with alarming regularity. It’s not your imagination. It’s not all in your head. Your combined senses of touch, sound, and sight all […]

Read More
Rachael Maney Sep 12, 2018

You may have already seen the video below. If you haven’t, please watch. On Tuesday, August 24th just before 7PM, Jeff McCord and approximately 20 other cyclists were stopped at the intersection of Karl Daly and Grants Mill Road in Irondale, Alabama, a town outside the city of Birmingham. As McCord waited for an ambulance […]

Read More
Rachael Maney Aug 30, 2018

In 2010, Richmond, California got lucky when Brooklyn born Najari Smith planted roots in the Bay Area city, quickly claiming a very important role in his new community. Having given more than 1,100 bikes to Richmond’s youth and community members in the last 6 years, Najari’s vision and mission to promote a bike-centric lifestyle has […]

Read More
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
Load More