Bill moves forward to strengthen ‘Vulnerable User Law,’ revise road sharing rules

$42.

That’s the “unsafe lane change” ticket a teenager received for striking and killing John Przychodzen while he biked in the shoulder of Kirkland’s Juanita Drive in 2011. Authorities claimed that because they couldn’t prove he was driving recklessly, the $42 ticket was all they could give.

That $42 ticket became a rallying cry for a change in state law to increase penalties for negligent, but not criminal, driving that resulted in a serious injury or death of a “vulnerable road user,” such as people walking, biking, riding an animal, using farm equipment, etc. The $42 became a symbol of the slap on the wrist too often given to people responsible for death or injury on our roads. It also became a symbol for the slap in the face victims and/or loved ones feel when they have to watch those responsible receive few or no repercussions.

But in the seven years since the law passed, law enforcement and prosecutors have not been regularly using it as was intended. So advocates such as Washington Bikes and lawmakers are working this session to pass a revised version of the law that increases penalties and makes them mandatory, putting the increased fines into a new “vulnerable roadway user education account.”  In the process, the bill also revises the laws around various road use responsibilities, including many biking and driving interactions.

The Senate already passed SSB 5723 (sponsored by Senators Randall, Saldaña, Liias, Rolfes, Billig, and Nguyen) with a unanimous 48–0 vote (PDF). It is currently in the House Transportation Committee.

Currently, state law basically just says that someone driving a car must pass someone biking “at a safe distance.” The new bill would attempt to clarify that by stating:

  • “On a roadway with two lanes or more for traffic moving in the direction of travel, before passing and until safely clear of the individual, move completely into a lane to the left of the right lane when it is safe to do so
  • On a roadway with only one lane for traffic moving in the direction of travel:
    • (A) When there is sufficient room to the left of the individual in the lane for traffic moving in the direction of travel, before passing and until safely clear of the individual:
      • (I) Reduce speed to a safe speed for passing relative to the speed of the individual; and
      • (II) Pass at a safe distance, where practicable of at least three feet, to clearly avoid coming into contact with the individual or the individual’s vehicle or animal; or
    • (B) When there is insufficient room to the left of the individual in the lane for traffic moving in the direction of travel to comply with (a)(ii)(A) of this subsection, before passing and until safely clear of the individual, move completely into the lane for traffic moving in the opposite direction when it is safe to do so and in compliance with RCW 46.61.120 and 46.61.125.”

Existing law also requires people biking to ride “as near to the right side of the right through lane as is safe” except when making a turn or passing someone. This has always been very vague because “as is safe” opens a lot of room for disagreement. For example, someone driving might not notice the road debris, traffic condition or parked car door dangers the same way someone biking does. So whose perception of safe are we talking about here? The new bill attempts to clarify some exceptions to this rule, though I imagine there is still plenty of room for disagreement. Here are some of the new exceptions:

  • When approaching an intersection where right turns are permitted and there is a dedicated right turn lane, in which case a person may operate a bicycle in this lane even if the operator does not intend to turn right
  • When reasonably necessary to avoid unsafe conditions including, but not limited to, fixed or moving objects, parked or moving vehicles, bicyclists, pedestrians, animals, and surface hazards
  • When the operator of a bicycle is using the travel lane of a roadway with only one lane for traffic moving in the direction of travel and it is wide enough for a bicyclist and a vehicle to travel safely side-by-side within it, the bicycle operator shall operate far enough to the right to facilitate the movement of an overtaking vehicle unless other conditions make it unsafe to do so or unless the bicyclist is preparing to make a turning movement or while making a turning movement.

The bill would also define a safe passing distance as “where practicable … at least three feet.” (NOTE: I corrected an earlier version in which I said the bill did not define a safe passing distance.) Close passing has always been a difficult infraction to enforce, and it’s not clear that defining the distance as three feet makes enforcement any easier than requiring the passing distance to be “safe” as Washington law currently states. And really, a “safe” passing distance changes according to the speed differential. Any closer than three feet is basically always too close. But if someone is driving, say, 35 miles per hour or faster, three feet still feels very close, especially if they are driving a large truck or bus.

There are just so many gray areas out on our state’s roadways, it’s hard to adequately codify every possible interaction and scenario. But the new bill at least attempts to address some common causes of serious collisions.

The bill also clarifies the legal rights and responsibilities of people walking and people with disabilities when sidewalks are not accessible:

In this bill text, strikethroughs show deletions and underlining shows additions. See full bill as passed by the Senate in this PDF.

Current law treats people walking on roadways without accessible sidewalks terribly, essentially telling them to jump in the bushes if a car is coming. The changes more or less recognize that a person walking along the side of a road without an accessible sidewalk has a right to exist. That’s a good step in the right direction.

I would love to see a state law that requires the provision of temporary sidewalks whenever public or private works displaces one, but that is probably the job of a different bill.

A brief history of the Vulnerable User Law

Leading up to the 2012 passage, safe streets advocates — including Cascade Bicycle Club and the former Bicycle Alliance of Washington — had already been working for years to pass a law that would increase non-criminal penalties for negligent driving that, while not reaching the standard of recklessness, caused immense harm or death to other road users. There were just too many cases where someone driving made a mistake while driving that killed or maimed another person and got off with no or little legal consequence. It is very painful for the victim and/or their loved ones when the person responsible is let go with essentially no consequences.

Something finally broke when that $42 ticket hit the news. Something about that number sparked outrage and became a rallying cry. It was so dramatically disproportionate to the loss of a community member’s life that people demanded a change to the law so future negligent (but not criminal) driving tragedies receive more appropriate consequences.

State lawmakers passed the “Vulnerable Road User” law the next session, codifying “negligent driving in the second degree.” The new offense would not be a criminal charge, and would not carry a prison sentence. This is one of the smart things about this law. If there were intent, intoxication, distraction or other forms of recklessness involved, there are existing criminal statutes authorities can pursue such as vehicular assault/homicide. But it makes little sense to lock up people for being bad drivers.

It also makes no sense to let people off with little to no consequences. They may not have intended to hurt or kill someone, but they are still responsible. So second degree negligent driving was designed to carry up to $5,000 in fines and a 90-day license suspension, though offenders could also be assigned to take traffic safety courses and relevant community service as the judge sees fit. These penalties are not commensurate with taking or injuring a life, but at least the person responsible would face more significant penalties and need to address their driving in some way.

But in the years since passage, the law just hasn’t been used as intended. Law enforcement may not cite infractions correctly or prosecutors may choose not to use it, perhaps because they don’t understand it. That’s why the changes not only make the penalties mandatory in relevant cases, it also creates an education fund designed to help authorities better understand how to use the law and to inform the public about their responsibilities on the road.

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7 Responses to Bill moves forward to strengthen ‘Vulnerable User Law,’ revise road sharing rules

  1. Lee Bruch says:

    The law contains some good things and like any bill that would pass, contains some compromises which aren’t the best of all world.
    …But…
    Look at the bill’s p. 8, where if a person is walking along a road without sidewalks walking on the shoulders, they are to face the direction of vehicle travel.
    Yes, that’s good and safe to do when feasible in an ideal world, but on roads like Aurora, Greenwood, and many other city arterials where large areas don’t have sidewalks, is it reasonable to have the law written in such a way that it doesn’t protect a person walking the “wrong way” to catch a bus or to visit someone 3 blocks away? Must a walker cross a busy arterial 2 times in order to be protected? I can just hear the court proceeding now for a driver who hits a pedestrian: “But your honor, the person was walking the wrong way. … [The judge: ] “Case dismissed”.

    • Breadbaker says:

      I totally agree. SDOT will often not require a “sidewalk closed” sign to be placed at a crosswalk, meaning that a pedestrian going in the same direction as a one-way street will need to either jaywalk or backtrack to walk opposite the direction of traffic. It feels like the drafters of this statute only are concerned with making it easier for drivers to be taken off the hook from killing people than actually recognizing the challenges facing pedestrians.

      • Southeasterner says:

        And unless there is a witness how are you going to prove (now that your dead) that you were walking against traffic?

        Defendant – Your honor. I may have been drunk, only my third DUI by the way, and distracted by my cell phone, but I am certain the pedestrian I ran over was walking with traffic and was therefor at fault for his own death.

        Judge – Well since this is only your third DUI, I have four myself but timed them over 11 years, and this is only the second pedestrian you have killed, I’m going to ask that you please pay a $42 fine. The county and tax payers will gladly eat the cost of the millions of dollars of physical, economic, and legal damage from this tragic accident. Now go forward good driving citizen and try the best that you can to watch out for pedestrians who refuse to abide by our laws.

  2. asdf2 says:

    “When approaching an intersection where right turns are permitted and there is a dedicated right turn lane, in which case a person may operate a bicycle in this lane even if the operator does not intend to turn right”

    Here’s one example that I travel through frequently, that this provision looks tailor made for:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@47.6463518,-122.2019226,3a,75y,344.77h,74.4t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sCfoYG8Rk5yJEF5143JjnOQ!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    This section comprises the primary route from the SR-520 trail to Kirkland. Technically, under existing law, one would be required to merge with cars into the left lane, then cut over into the bike lane which begins immediately after the driveway. In practice, nobody does this. It is much easier and safer to just go straight from the right-turn lane into the bike lane – no merge with cars needed. So, for this case, it looks like the legislature is simply updating the law to match with common sense.

    But, of course, going straight on a bike from a right-turn lane doesn’t work everywhere, and here is a glaring case where it absolutely doesn’t work:

    https://www.google.com/maps/@47.6239759,-122.3343225,3a,75y,349.54h,90.62t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sGx5etmGt61aQqtnGQIgWig!2e0!7i16384!8i8192

    Maybe the law text should be revised so that going straight from a right-turn lane is only allowed if there are no other lanes to the left of you, from which right turns are permitted. Then again, if double right turns are inherently dangerous to cyclists (by forcing them to merge left with cars in order to go straight), maybe the double-right turn configuration should just be banned, instead. The intersection here, there simply *is* no safe way to straight on a bike, short of taking refuge on the sidewalk and using the crosswalks as a pedestrian (and waiting the 8-10 minutes for 3 crosswalk signals). Intersections like this simply do not belong, especially in a urban area, a mere 1 mile from downtown Seattle.

  3. kDavid says:

    I personally won’t be satisfied until the word “accident” is removed from the vernacular in any of these situations involving vulnerable road users. And furthermore, anyone who negligently operates at 2 ton vehicle and causes the death of a vulnerable user should face a minimum of three years in prison AND restitution to that victims dependents. No exceptions.

    Only then will people start taking shared-use seriously.

  4. Ragged Robin says:

    Good. We were in dire need of a “safe passing” law. As it stands, the “far right of the right through lane” interprets to “hug the curb and BEG cars to UNSAFELY squeeze right pass you in the same lane regardless if there’s one or more lanes they could easily use to pass safely before overtaking.”

    I’ll be surprised if cops actually enforce any of this though.

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