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Cascade: Law enforcement is often unfamiliar with the Vulnerable User Law

Image of Heather, via Cascade
Image of Heather, via Cascade

Two years ago, the primary focus of bicycling interests in the state legislature was to pass a bill that would create a penalty for negligent driving that results in a serious injury or worse.

The 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 law enforcement seem not to be aware of how it works.

Rook’s story focuses on the case of Heather Barnett, who was seriously injured when an SUV ran a stop sign and struck her in Ballard last September. Barnett and her boyfriend Josh had to fight hard and hire a bike lawyer (Seattle Bike Blog sponsor John Duggan, in fact) to get law enforcement to file the citations and charges she needs to get back on her feet and recoup her losses.

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While that court battle is still pending, her struggle highlights a troubling gap in the enforcement of the VUL.

From Cascade’s blog:

Once they were able to get a hold of the officer, they asked her about the lack of citation. The officer explained she was not familiar with the Vulnerable User Law but after revisiting the accident report, she was eventually willing to write a failure to yield citation.

“The [Vulnerable User] law is there but I’m under the impression that no one knows about it. It shouldn’t be up to the victim to enlighten law enforcement about this law,” [said John Duggan].

Now on a mission, Josh went up the chain of command and reached out to the City Attorney’s Office.

“We spoke to with Assistant City Attorney Mindy Longanecker who  felt it was a serious enough case that the police should turn it over to traffic investigations and wanted to go ahead with the Vulnerable User charge,” said Heather.

On Jan. 25, the City Attorney’s Office filed charges against the driver, including failure to yield, driving without insurance and a negligent driving in the second degree vulnerable user charge. Combined, the fines add up to $11,184.00.

“I don’t feel malignant toward the driver,” Heather said. “I’m just frustrated that there would have been no outcome, no consequence for the driver. If we hadn’t gone after it, there would have been no fee or consequence at all.”

“It’s been a really bizarre adventure,” continued Heather. “And it’s been a lot of effort on our – the victim’s – part. We wouldn’t be getting anywhere if he hadn’t pushed so hard. Josh went above and beyond to put pressure on to get some kind of outcome.”

The fight is far from over. A court dismissed the second-degree negligent driving charge (made possible by the VUL) in February, though the city is appealing the decision.

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14 responses to “Cascade: Law enforcement is often unfamiliar with the Vulnerable User Law”

  1. CL

    Tom, I’m so grateful for your article.

    My 6yr. old and I witnessed a collision last fall in which person crossing at a lighted intersection, in the crosswalk (with the green) was struck by a car turning left. The only thing the police charged the (uninsured) driver with was “failure to yield”. This happened in a school zone, at 8:30am (my young daughter and I were riding to school in a bike train, and yes, she saw the whole thing).

    Is the VUL applicable in all cases of “failure to yield to a pedestrian”?

    I was appalled at this, and could not believe this was the only charge.

    Can you tell me particularly if this law can be applied

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s a great question. I’m not an expert on exactly how the law works, but I believe it can be triggered by a combination of a traffic citation and significant injury. So if the person driving gets a ticket for failure to yield and the person walking is significantly injured, I would assume prosecutors could elect to pursue a negligent driving charge. But don’t quote me on that.

      Anyone out there know exactly how it works?

  2. Matthew

    Still no charges filed against the driver who hit and seriously injured a 12-year-old girl biking to school on the sidewalk in Kent last November. Not only did she fail to yield, she failed to remain at the scene (this was a hit-and-run). She hit and dragged a girl biking on the sidewalk, drove away, and there are no consequences for her. It’s infuriating.

    If a clear-cut case of negligence like that can’t trigger the Vulnerable User law, then what, if anything, is the point of having such a law in the first place?

  3. meanie

    I was struck and hospitalized in a separated bike lane by a driver, he was cited for “inattentive driving”

    Until its actually illegal to hit people with your car, instead of a mild citation* no one will care about this issue.

    * being simply fined for nearly killing a person is a sad commentary on car centric living.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      In theory, that’s supposed to be the point of the Vulnerable User Law. It’s frustrating to see that it’s not being used as much as it should. Hopefully, it’s just growing pains and law enforcement and prosecutors get more used to how it works.

  4. Brian

    I’d also add this little vignette about the culture surrounding car “accidents.” Our state has a publically-funded crime victims compensation program in order to help the victims of criminal acts. It basically carves out all vehicular crimes unless the driver intentionally strikes the victim. So good luck if you get hit by a driver with no insurance.

  5. CL

    I’m so sorry ‘meanie’, what a terrible experience.

    Hitting someone with a car should be taken much more seriously. Is anyone aware of a proposed bill that would seek to go one step further than the VUL that’s currently in place?

  6. Was just wondering the same thing — shouldn’t take legislation but maybe that’s what it will take.

  7. GBallard

    Very best to Heather in her recovery, and I hope to see her back on her bike on 8th with the rest of us soon!

    Maybe not surprisingly, the woman who hit Heather, Kelly Wengping Lee, is (allegedly) a thief as well as a reckless driver. Lee has been charged with multiple counts of felony identity theft for attempting to use Port of Seattle credit cards to purchase items from Nordstroms online.

    She was arrested on 11/13/12, unfortunately too late for Heather.



    and the charging documents:


  8. pqbuffington

    From learning the hard way…if you are ever involved in any accident that requires any medical attention and/or service, get a lawyer as soon as you possibly can.

    Do not wait for your insurance company (auto or health) or any third party’s insurance, get a lawyer.

    After 911, call a lawyer.

    This is your only chance at receiving any meaningful compensation (for medical services and/or loss of wages and/or pain-and-suffering) and may in fact be the most critical element to recovering from your injuries.

    The law is, almost literally, against you…interpretation of the law is definitely against you.

    And, if you think this leads to any fantastically exorbitant pay-outs that make the headlines, please think again. Even when you employ a lawyer you will be lucky to break even, but having proper legal representation is the only leverage you will have.

  9. It shouldn’t have taken the legislation we have. Before the VUL police and prosecutors could have charged negligent drivers with a variety of offenses but didn’t, and the courts didn’t really help the matter. So the legislature has had to make it clear they actually intend for the rule of law to apply to roads. It seems to be taking some time for police, prosecutors, and courts to get the message.

  10. Erik Busse

    I was hit cut off by a car who pulled out in front of me on red, called 911 and the operator said that since I was able to call I should just treat it like a car on car collision. Unbelievable.

  11. […] the more significant education and financial penalties prescribed by the Vulnerable User Law. There have been issues with pursuing the law since it went into […]

  12. […] is not pursuing the second degree negligent driving charge created by the Vulnerable User Law raises serious questions about the law’s efficacy and/or the justice system’s ignorance of how to use it or […]

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