Vulnerable User Bill: Frequently Asked Questions (UPDATED)

Keep ‘em coming, folks!  The Vulnerable User Bill has many complexities, and we want to be very clear about what we’re trying to accomplish and why.  We also want to make sure our legislators are well-educated about this bill and confident that the answer is YEA when it’s time to vote.

We've received innumerable questions about the Vulnerable User Bill, especially after our recent call to action. This is a complex issue, and we've tweaked the bill language with help from prosecutors, defenders and other stakeholders.  You can read a printable summary here.

Thank you to the 2,500 people (as of 2/11) who have contacted their senators so far!  If you or your friends are wondering about the details, here are a few of the most common questions we've been asked:

Don't we have enough laws?

This bill does not create a new type of traffic infraction, but it does allow for different penalties when a driver breaks current laws seriously injures a vulnerable user of the road.  A state statute says that "...a traffic infraction and may not be classified as a criminal offense..." (RCW 46.63.020) except under very specific circumstances.    And the tests for what constitutes these crimes are very high under current law - for instance, speeding is only "reckless" driving if the driver is traveling three times the speed limit or 150mph.  Have fun driving down the highway at 149!  So there is currently a wide gap in Washington state law between traffic infractions and serious crimes like vehicular assault, unless the driver is under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, or hits and runs.  We've posted a more in-depth look at laws here.

What's a vulnerable user?  Why aren't regular drivers included?

Auto insurance companies will cover clients while they are in cars - if not, it's a mixed bag.  Washington Bike Law has an excellent Q&A on this problem.  There is also an obligation to exercise "due care" on the part of motorists that is all too often ignored.  This is why we sought to create another class of roadway users, including pedestrians, bicyclists, equestrians, highway workers, skaters/rollerskaters/rollerbladers, people on scooters and people in wheelchairs or on farm equipment.

Is this a new concept?  Are there other places with similar bills?

Many countries in Europe have laws to protect vulnerable roadway users.  The concept literally translates from Dutch as "soft traffic."  Similar bills to SB 5838 have passed in Illinois and Oregon, and one was recently introduced in New York.

Are you trying to criminalize accidents?  This bill is too harsh.

First, this law would only apply to drivers who are already committing a traffic infraction: speeding, texting, running a red light, etc.  And the bill does not make it a criminal offense, but it increases the penalty involved.

Second, we don't find it helpful to write off these collisions as "accidents."  We know that for the situations where the law would apply, the incidents could be prevented by a simple glance in the mirror, easing off on the gas pedal or more attention to the road.

Why not an eye for an eye?  This bill is too weak.

This bill is not about vengeance.  We hope to prevent further violations by addressing the root problem.  For this reason, the available penalties include a driving safety course and 200 hours of community service that is directly related to traffic safety.  For drivers who do not make the effort to comply within a year, the judge can tack on a license suspension and/or a $5,000 fine.  And driving with a suspended license is no laughing matter - it's a criminal offense.

Can't victims or their families just file a lawsuit?

Yes, it is common for the families of victims to file wrongful death suits in civil court.  But this is a lengthy and costly process.  Most of the victims who attended the Traffic Justice Summit last October were not concerned with monetary compensation for their losses as much as educating drivers to be more careful and keeping repeat offenders off the road.

We hope this helps address your concerns about the Vulnerable User Bill - please contact us with any further questions and ask your state senator to vote YES.

Will this go on the driver’s criminal record?

No, this is a traffic infraction and not a criminal offense.  It would only appear on a driving record.

If it’s not a crime, why do these look like criminal penalties?

If a driver is cited in accordance with this bill, he or she will have a court hearing, and be required to complete a traffic safety course and up to 100 hours of community service.  Other penalties only apply if the driver does not follow the A license suspension and a fine of between $1,000-$5,000 applies only if the driver fails to show up in court or follow the judge’s requirements.

What if it was the bicyclist’s fault?  Shouldn’t bicyclists follow the rules of the road?

The Vulnerable User Bill only applies if the driver is the “proximate cause” of the injuries or death of a vulnerable user.  So it would not apply in that case, or, for example, if a pedestrian suddenly leapt into the road and a driver did not have time to stop.  Or if a bicyclist ran a red light.  Cascade goes to great effort to educate thousands of bicyclists every year that the best way to stay safe on the road is to operate like a vehicle, and to be treated like one.  This includes obeying traffic laws!

Will this bill clog up our courts?

Because of the limited nature of the law, it would apply in about 150 of more than 1.2 million infractions in Washington every year.  Since our goal is to reduce the number of careless drivers, we hope that this number will decline in the future.  State legislative staff have estimated the cost of implementing the law at zero in the fiscal note prepared for SB 5838.

Why not focus on something else, like building safer streets or banning cell phone use?

Along with law enforcement, it is important to have a comprehensive strategy to promote safe bicycling.  The other four of the “Five E’s” often referenced are education, encouragement, evaluation and engineering.  We are also working this year as part of coalitions that will make texting and cell phone use a primary offense, and a statewide Complete Streets bill.  Last year (our first with a full-time presence in Olympia) we helped pass a Safe Routes to School bill for children along with a number of other organizations.