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The Vulnerable User Law is live in Washington state

The teenager who swerved into the shoulder of Juanita Dr and killed John “Mr. Safety” Przychodzen last summer received a $42 ticket for an “unsafe lane change.” The kid was not intoxicated and was not being “reckless,” police said. So the $42 ticket was all they felt they could give him.

The Vulnerable User Law, which state bicycle advocates fought for years to pass, was written to address all-too-common situations like these where a negligent-but-not-criminal traffic error results in the death or serious injury of someone walking or biking. The VUL went into effect July 1 in Washington.

The brilliance of the law is that it does not seek to criminalize negligent driving. Instead, it outlines a series of financial penalties, license suspensions and driving education or relevant community service projects that, in theory, will ensure the person driving takes a level of accountability for what they have done.

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Before the law, people often drove away from the scene where they killed someone, and only needed to mail in a check with their ticket and be done with it. Not only is that an insult to the family and friends of the person killed or injured, but I feel like that would be more psychologically agonizing for the driver than were they to have a chance to at least in some way make amends for what they have done.

In the end, a reactive law like this does not really make cycling much safer, but it rights a loophole in social responsibility that should never have been there. Good work, everyone who fought to get this law passed. Now let’s make our streets so safe we never have to use it.

From Cascade:

“A small fine is not a stiff enough penalty for killing or seriously injuring someone due to negligent driving,” said Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle), the bill’s prime sponsor. “This puts reasonable expectations on motorists to pay attention to bicyclists and other non-automobile users of the roadway, and will help provide some sense of justice to families who have lost loved ones.”

Under the new law, a driver committing a traffic infraction—such as speeding, texting while driving or running a red light—that results in the serious injury or death of a vulnerable roadway user will face an automatic fine of up to $5,000 and a 90-day suspension of driving privileges.

Alternatively, the driver may choose to appear in court and request the alternate penalty of 100-hours of community service in traffic safety or driver improvement, completion of a state approved traffic safety course, and a fine of $250.

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19 responses to “The Vulnerable User Law is live in Washington state”

  1. meanie

    I was recently in a accident where a drive merged across a lane, into the bike lane, earning me a visit to the hospital. His ticket was for “inattentive driving”

    The VUL is a good start, but we need to recognize as a society that driving is a privilege that should be revoked under certain circumstances, like injuring or killing pedestrians and cyclists.

    Until then it just reinforces the notion that driving is a absolute right, and that these fines are just the cost of doing business for driving.

  2. I disagree that not criminalizing this sort of act constitutes “brilliance.” In fact, I am quite stunned: RCW 9A.32.060 holds that “A person is guilty of manslaughter in the first degree [a class A felony] when he or she recklessly causes the death of another person.” In what universe is driving on the shoulder of a road not a reckless act?

    The PI article you reference in an earlier post does quote Kirkland Police Detective Allan O’Neill saying “unless a person’s driving recklessly, they’re intoxicated, (on) drugs or alcohol, then there’s really no criminal charge on this.” But that’s not quite true: one can be reckless for the purposes of the manslaughter law without having to be driving. RCW 46.61.500 holds that “any person who drives any vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.” Does it necessarily follow that a person is not guilty of reckless *behaviour* if they’re driving but without explicitly “wilful or wanton disregard” of the general welfare, especially when such behaviour is illegal and results in a fatality? I wonder if a better lawyer could have demonstrated recklessness on the part of the driver.

    Anyway, good article. Some progress is better than none at all. Maybe the next step is to revise the reckless driving statute to include a liability clause.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That might have been sloppy writing on my part. I guess I should clarify that I don’t see much good to come from jail time for negligent driving (which might stem from my general distrust in our broken prison system, which is another argument altogether). I would rather see someone have their license suspended or repealed, pay a hefty fine and do a relevant community service project (like, say, in a trauma ward or teaching teens about the traffic safety lessons they’ve learned, etc). But that might be a bit too much editorializing on my part. Thanks for the comment.

      1. Brian

        I think you’re completely wrong about not criminalizing, or being lenient on, negligent driving. The idea of simply suspending someone’s license does not work. It has been tried, and it does not stop people from driving, instead it traps people in an endless cycle of DWLS 3 charges.

  3. Peri

    I, too, think this should have been classified as reckless driving. Perhaps it can be appealed. If killing someone by making a driving error isn’t reckless, what is? In other words, one needs to take driving seriously and pay attention and use good judgement. I have know idea what the teen was doing in this case, but it’s hard to imagine that the car swerved on its own.

  4. Alby

    What if a cyclist illegally “merges” across a lane of traffic? Ever heard of one being ticketed for “inattentive cycling?” What if the cyclist is negligent, causes a traffic accident? No license to suspend, no insurance to go up, no automatic fine of up to $5,000. What if he rides off? No 100-hours of community service in traffic safety or driver improvement, no completion of a state approved traffic safety course, no fine of $250.

    Are you guys starting to see where the disconnect is yet?

    Driving on a roadway built expressly for automobiles is more of a right than riding a bike on it will ever be. Driving on the shoulder of a roadway and injuring somebody in the process is nobody’s right. Ever.

    1. no traffic lights

      No roadway should be designed ‘expressly for the use of automobiles’, that’s terrible infrastructure design.

    2. Orv

      I’m as much of a critic of reckless cycling as anyone, but I don’t think a reckless cyclist has ever killed anyone but themselves. I don’t see the situations as even slightly similar. My only concern is that a driver not face a stiff penalty if they get in an accident that was unavoidable due to the cyclist doing something inappropriate, but that’s really not that common a scenario.

    3. I’ve been ticketed for going through a red light, which I did safely, in a situation where it was legal for me to do so; my ticket was actually for more than the pathetic $42 lane-violation ticket! Cyclists on the BGT were recently ticketed for disobeying poorly-designed pedestrian signals (going through a flashing hand that’s timed for very slow walkers) at poorly-designed intersections in Lake Forest Park. The Seattle police have conducted jaywalking stings and issued tickets to people that correctly applied their own judgment and never put anyone (themselves included) in danger. The disconnect isn’t what you think it is.

      The disconnect is that cars are very large and heavy and can travel at very fast speeds effortlessly. The mass and speed of a car overwhelms the strength of the human body; its speed can effortlessly overwhelm the abilities of our senses, judgment, and reaction time. There may be a reasonable case for licensing cyclists and bikes (though I haven’t seen any evidence there’s a compelling interest in the state doing so) but even when we don’t there’s definitely a compelling interest in licensing drivers and cars, and regulating their behavior strictly. It’s not at all inconsistent to regulate drivers much more strictly than cyclists.

      Driving is never a right, it’s a privilege. Use a bicycle to get around for a few weeks and you’ll meet a lot of people from whom this privilege should be revoked. And you’ll be glad for anything that gets them off the road.

  5. Ann Marie

    I think everyone should have to retake the entire driving test every other time you renew a drivers license (8 years). Then everyone can constantly be kept up to date on handling a lethal wepon. We would also be constantly updated on what to look out for, and how to share the road, common courtesy. Right now the test is only required when you move to another state. How to handle small vehicles and large vehicles, and the size of the blind spots, can also be taught.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      You don’t have to retake the driving test when you change states. I wish you did, but you don’t.

  6. We are all guilty for letting kids drive.

    Kids drive carelessly, as a matter of course. Long past time to be surprised by this.

    If people were serious about making the streets safer they would do two things: (1) raise the driving age and (2) revoke the driving privilege of deadly careless drivers, especially those whose brains haven’t fully developed yet.

    We’re going to send this kid back out behind the wheel. That’s criminal.

  7. […] driver was cited (and I hope the driver is on the hook for his medical bills). Shouldn’t the vulnerable user law kick in […]

  8. […] Vulnerable User Law has been in place for almost a year, but it is rarely used and, as Cascade Bicycle Club’s Anne-Marije Rook reports today, many in […]

  9. […] The Vulnerable User Law was needed to help fill a maddening (yet common in the US) hole in the state’s road traffic laws that prevented the justice system from imposing any serious penalties on people who were responsible for the serious injury or death of a person walking or biking. For example, if a person driving makes a traffic error like failing to yield at a crosswalk and hits a person walking across the street, so long as there was not an aggravating circumstance (intoxication, malice, criminal recklessness, etc), the person driving might just get sent home with a small ticket while the person walking goes to hospital. […]

  10. […] is not clear why there has not been a citation under Washington’s Vulnerable User Law, which was created for situations almost exactly like this one. Too often, someone’s life is […]

  11. […] in a special position to do more than simply apologize and pay her ticket (the Vulnerable User Law did not go into effect until a couple months after the collision, so the question of whether or not that law could have […]

  12. […] In fact, in the state of Washington you pedestrians, cyclists, and other vulnerable travelers are legally classified as a vulnerable user. And vulnerable you are – just look at your chances of survival if hit by a vehicle moving at […]

  13. […] Negligent Driving in the Second Degree is not a felony crime. It was designed for situations exactly like this one, where someone makes a traffic error that has a horrendous […]

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