Sometimes it feels like salt in a wound. Somebody walking or biking in town is seriously injured by someone behind the wheel, and the person driving—even if they did something wrong—does not even get a ticket at the scene.
But the Seattle City Attorney’s Office (“SCAO”) sent a memo to SPD recently explaining that this is actually the best way to utilize the state’s 2011 Vulnerable User Law, which created penalties and education requirements for people who seriously injure or kill a person while driving negligently.
A ticket at the scene can sometimes make implementing the law more difficult, according to the City Attorney. So it is actually best for officers to refer incidents to the department’s traffic collision investigators who can follow-up and learn more about the victim’s condition and better assess whether negligence was a factor in causing those injuries.
Cascade Bicycle Club, which helped work to pass the law, has been tracking implementation. Earlier this year, they reported that many law enforcement agencies are not familiar with how to use the law. Below is an excerpt of their report on the new City Attorney guidance:
“Vulnerable user citations are appropriate where a person’s non-criminal negligent driving causes serious injury or death to a “vulnerable user,” which includes essentially anyone not in a passenger car or truck…the statute encompasses a wide range of potential scenarios, including everything from cases where a defendant’s failure to yield to a pedestrian resulted in a hairline fracture, to conduct falling just short of King County’s filing standards for “dry” vehicular homicide charges ,” the memorandum states
Under the Vulnerable User Law, which Cascade worked to pass through the Washington Legislature in 2011, a driver committing a traffic infraction 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.
Due to the serious nature of these violations, the SCAO asks that most of these cases are not charged at the scene, but rather be referred to the Traffic Collision Investigation Squad (TCIS) for referral to the SCAO for charging.”
The SCAO’s memorandum states that the referral is particularly important because in some cases the extent of a vulnerable user victim’s injuries may not be immediately apparent to officers at the scene.
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.
For example, a likely distracted teen swerved on the shoulder of Juanita Drive and struck John Pryzychodzen in Kirkland in 2011 before the VUL went into effect. Pryzychodzen, who was known for his attention to safety while cycling, was killed. But the teen ended up with an insulting $42 ticket for “unsafe lane change.” It’s as though the fact that someone’s life ended and that the lives of his family and friends were changed forever was not relevant in the eyes of the law.
The Vulnerable User Law is somewhat brilliant because rather making negligent driving a criminal act, it is designed to make sure that the person whose negligence caused the injury or death has to take responsibility for what happened. They can lose their license for up to 90 days and pay a hefty fine of up to $5,000. Or they can appear in court, pay $250, complete a traffic safety course and complete 100 hours of relevant community service.
Unfortunately, many Seattle Police Officers do not understand the basic rules of the road as they apply to bicyclists. On far too many occasions we see, not only does a negligent driver get away with injuring a bicyclist without being ticketed, the bicyclist is issued a ticket, sometimes in the mail with an officer speaking only to the driver because the bicyclist is en-route to the hospital.
This is not acceptable. Many police officers do understand our laws and are supportive of bicyclists. But all officers should understand our laws and fairly enforce them. This is not the case…
I witnessed a car run a fully red light on Bell St. at 5th Ave. yesterday. They almost clipped a woman who started to cross when the they got the walk signal. The funny (actually not funny at all) thing was they we behind one of Seattle’s “finest” who had just rolled through the light as it was turning yellow. Needless to say, they were not pulled over. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if it is possible to get pulled over while driving a car in downtown Seattle unless you hit someone. The only person I can remember seeing in recent history getting pulled over was a cyclist running a red at 5th and Battery.
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I wonder why the VUL was not applied to Nathan David Head, the individual who (allegedly) struck a cyclist in Capitol Hill in a hit-and-run while driving a car2go. He was instead charged with a misdemeanor hit-and-run involving a bike or pedestrian, which does not carry a license suspension penalty (for some reason) and will almost certainly result in less punishment than a VUL infraction. To me, this seems like a fairly clear-cut situation in which the City Attorney could have applied the VUL.