Ken McLeod – Legal Specialist, Advocacy Advance
The “Vulnerable Road User” concept is a new and powerful tool — and it’s taking root throughout the country.
Recent legislative successes include the “Access to Justice for Bicyclists Act of 2012” in Washington D.C., the recent endorsement of a vulnerable user ordinance by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors (read more about that campaign here) and a statewide law in Utah. While VRU protections have proliferated in the past five years, they continue to take many shapes.
So, in this edition of Bike Law University, we explore the current laws and the concept behind them.
What are they?
Automobiles provide a shell of protection for their users — creating a safety disparity between cars and other road users. This is not to say non-automobile forms of transportation aren’t safe, but simply that there is a difference between what occurs when a car is hit at 25 miles-per-hour and what occurs when a pedestrian is hit at 25 mph. While the percentage of motorist deaths has fallen, the percentage of road fatalities that are bicyclists and pedestrians has grown in recent years (from 12 percent to 16 percent).
Vulnerable Road User laws increase protection for bicyclists and other road users who are not in cars. They are relatively new and states have chosen to protect vulnerable road users in a variety of ways. This includes usually involves 1) harsher penalties for the violation of existing laws when that violation impacts a defined set of road users or 2) the creation of new laws that prohibit certain actions directed at a defined set of road users.
Why should you care?
Safety: The vast majority of VRU laws provide for increased fines or civil liability in cases where a vulnerable road user is injured or killed because of negligence or as the result of a traffic violation. These laws increase the cost of unsafe practices that impact bicyclists and provide an incentive for safer driving practices, especially around cyclists and pedestrians. In this way the laws are much like increased fines in work zones, which promote construction worker safety. VRU laws recognize that the type of simple negligence or traffic violations that may result in minor collisions between cars can have disproportionately severe results when a vulnerable road user is involved and provide ways to address those divergent results.
Justice: In some states VRU laws include the option or mandate that a person convicted of injuring or killing a vulnerable road user attend a hearing. Without these laws, a driver who injures or kills a bicyclist may simply pay a fine through the mail — despite the severity of the impact of his or her actions. These hearings can provide a chance for both sides to meet and tell their stories, similar to victim impact panels that are a feature of DUI offenses. The League believes the experience of a hearing is a valuable tool for addressing the separateness between motorists and bicyclists — and endorses requiring a hearing as part of our Model Legislation (http://www.bikeleague.org/action/bikelaws/modellaws.php).
Messaging: VRU laws may be an important and effective part of messaging about road safety. The VRU concept is inclusive and multi-modal. It provides a messaging and legal framework for a wide range of advocates interested in road safety that highlights and increases awareness of the inherent safety disparity between road users encased in a protective shell and those who are not. As a newer concept, it has the potential to engage law enforcement, judges, and juries in a way that they have not been been before and shift perceptions. While these individuals or groups may not always understand what it is like to be a cyclist, at one time or another everyone has been a vulnerable road user.
Enforcement: A VRU law may increase access to justice. Vulnerable road users, unlike automobile users, may lack the evidence and expensive property damage that is created in a car crash. Statutory civil penalties may provide an incentive for lawyers to work with vulnerable road users to recover damages and recognize the serious of vulnerable road user crashes. Criminal penalties provide an additional enforcement tool for police and a framework for better traffic enforcement.
Who has them?
Five states – Delaware, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington – have VRU laws that define a set of road users as vulnerable and provide specific processes and penalties for actions directed at those users. The District of Columbia and 17 other states in some way address vulnerable road users by prohibiting certain actions — such as harassment or the throwing of objects — or by providing the ability for persons to be charged with greater penalties when their actions result in the injury or death of a vulnerable road user.
Where did they come from?
The first state to pass a vulnerable road user law, which defined a set of road users as vulnerable and provided specific penalties for actions directed at those users, was Oregon, in 2007. Many of the other laws that protect vulnerable road users from certain actions were passed in response to tragedies caused by motorist-bicyclist collisions. As of the last revision to the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC) in 2000, there is no UVC section equivalent to vulnerable road user laws. The closest relevant section is UVC 11-1111, which deals with glass and other substances likely to injure on a roadway. Some variation of UVC 11-1111 has been adopted in a majority of states.
Spotlight State: Oregon
Oregon enacted the first Vulnerable Road User law in the U.S. in 2007. The law provides a definition of vulnerable users and sets out distinct penalties for the serious physical injury or death of vulnerable road users under the careless driving law. Careless driving is a Class A or B traffic violation — depending on whether it involves a crash — and requires a hearing when it involves the serious physical injury or death of a vulnerable road user. The penalties are significant when that careless driving results in a serious physical injury or death of a vulnerable road user: a fine that’s six times the standard maximum fine for a Class A traffic violation and a one-year suspension of driving privileges.
In addition, Oregon addresses vehicular assault against bicyclists and pedestrians as a separate Class A misdemeanor. This vehicular assault law can complement or provide an alternative to a citation for a violation of Oregon’s safe passing law, giving law enforcement options to account for different driver behavior or enforcement concerns related to the safe passing law.
Learn more about how the vulnerable road user law was developed and enacted here. Since the initial law, advocates, like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, have worked for improvements, including an amendment in 2011.
Photo: Alliance for Biking & Walking Photo Library