The Case for a Vulnerable Road User Law

To the astonishment of many, a recent fatal accident involving a skilled cyclist legally using a public roadway did not result in any charges against the driver who hit him. According to the Commonwealth’s Attorney for Virginia Beach there are no laws protecting bicyclists, pedestrians or other non-motorized users of a public road from being struck by a vehicle whose driver plainly “didn’t see” the victim. Unless there is proof of gross negligence or circumstances such as alcohol, drugs, speed or an illegal maneuver on the part of the driver there are simply no provisions in state law to support bringing charges.

For the drivers that are cited, often times it is a mail in fine. It seems that killing a cyclist or runner doesn’t even merit a court appearance. Society is in effect saying to the driver “it’s ok that you killed someone, we understand.”

Whether the accident occurred through inattentiveness or incompetency, the driver doesn’t even merit a look by officials to see if they should continue to have a license. They are free to go back out and kill or injure someone else. In practice, Virginia law places seemingly little burden on drivers to be alert for and safely maneuver around other roadway users. The balance certainly seems tilted in the drivers favor.

This needs to be changed. Non-motorists using a road or street have every right to expect that drivers will be alert and avoid them. For those drivers who aren’t willing or are unable to comply, there needs to be a provision in state law where their driving skills are called into question and penalties applied.

One way this could be accomplished is by introducing what is termed a “vulnerable roadway user” into Virginia law. This defines a class of roadway users who are vulnerable to being killed or seriously injured by a car or truck. The definition can include pedestrians, runners, bicyclists, equestrians, highway workers, and even motorcycles and farm equipment.

In July 2007 Oregon enacted such a law (HB3314; ORS 801.608, ORS 811.135); there is also a similar bill working its way through the Texas legislature (SB488/HB827).  (VBF note — the Texas law was passed by the legislature with a healthy margin, but vetoed by the governor.) Oregon’s provisions include a mandatory court appearance, a one year suspension of driving privileges, and a $12,500 fine. It falls short of what many would like to see, but is a start.

Adoption of similar measures by Virginia would provide law enforcement with a useful tool for charging drivers who cause serious injury or death to other users of the public way. “I didn’t see him or her” will no longer be automatically excusable.

An internet search on this topic turns up plenty of background material, some of which I’ve repeated above (Ray Thomas; http://www.stc-law.com/vulnerable.html ). Do the reading, and if you agree and want to help change Virginia, please contact your state and local elected officials to seek their support.

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13 comments… add one

  • I fully support your efforts re: vulnerable road users. However, the explanation offered by Mr. Lawson (http://fotobywes.blogspot.com/2009/05/meeting-with-commonwealth-attorney.html) for the absence of charges in this incident is completely unsatisfactory and should not be accepted.

    If we accept for the moment that “willful intent” is required, the fundamental question is why didn’t the driver see the cyclist? Clearly the cyclist didn’t drop down from the sky and there is no suggestion or reason to believe that he flung himself at the vehicle from a right angle. The best explanation provided is that the police reconstruction team found “a significant glare from the rising sun at the spot where she hit Dan.”

    Bingo.

    Driving into a significant glare that prevents one from seeing what’s in the road ahead clearly meets the test of “willful intent.” Commonwealth Attorney Bryant is wrong, and don’t let him tell you different.

  • This law should absolutely not be passed – the onus of safety should be on the shoulders of the bicyclist, not the drivers of cars.

    I live in the Palisades in Washington DC, and have to deal with dangerous bicyclists on the road when I am driving and on the sidewalk when I am walking. It is not the case of a “few bad apples” ruining the name of bicyclists everywhere – 60 – 80% of people on bicycles ride extraordinarily dangerously. Examples:

    * Not heeding traffic signals. A bicyclist will merely slow down at a red light. I have literally never, ever seen a bicyclist wait for a green light except in the case of traffic blocking their way. I drive past Foxhall and MacArthur every day, and that light at the bottom of the hill is apparently optional for bicyclists.
    *Weaving between cars between lanes. The number of times I have been changing lanes, making a turn, or simply following slow traffic to have a bicyclist use my car as a balance point when they are between my car and another is stagerring.
    * Clipping pedestrians on the sidewalk. I walk to work some days – the more experienced bicyclists are on the road, but the less experienced bicylists are on the sidewalk, looking to to clip me with their handle bar while saying “on your right…”

    My responses: extensive uses of the horn with bicyclists (they love this), harsh uses of the ‘love bump’ (the quick jolt of the steering wheel to keep them on their toes) and walking in a zig zag path on the sidewalk at all times.

    So in summary, I am glad that I don’t have to worry about being charged if I kill a bicyclist that falls in the category of the 60-80% of dangerous drivers. In fact, I would reserve the guilt for killing a bicyclist near the place in my heart I feel for squirrels that I hit with my car – much like these walnut-brained animals, dangerous bicyclists do not belong on the road.

  • Obliviousness is not an allowable defense when a vehicle operator causes an accident. (That includes a bicyclist hitting a pedestrian, as well as a car driver hitting a cyclist.) All vehicle operators must maintain awareness of their physical surroundings, other road users and pedestrians. Inability to respect other road users as deserving to be there is one type of gross incompetency or negligence that should rightly result in suspension or loss of a license.

    That said, the Texas law does state that the “vulnerable road user” needs to be following the road laws too. Dangerous bike riding practices presumably mitigate the motor vehicle operator’s responsibility in an accident in proprtion to how much their ability to avoid the accident was reduced by the dangerous riding. But feeling annoyed is never an excuse. http://www.biketexas.org/content/view/1115/881/

    I ride without weaving, as frustrating as it is when a mere half a dozen car drivers clog up an entire block ahead of me by riding 1 to a car and cause me to miss a light. I stop at red lights and am careful not to clip pedestrians or even make them nervous. Of course, all that does slow me down, quite a bit. But I have found car drivers are usually considerate and quite careful of me as a bicycle and moped operator who is riding non-agressively.

    Good bike lanes seem to be the easiest design for sharing a busy roadway, by far. Then cyclists can pass cars or vice versa without interfering excessively with each other. Everyone needs re-education about sharing the road.

  • A vulnerable road user law definitely SHOULD be passed to reinforce that all vehicle operators are responsible for safely sharing the road.

  • Passing this law would be insanity, where’s the common sense? Why do bicyclists think they have the right to share space with vehicles??? Riding a bike on road is not an individual right. Roads were designed to be used by multi-ton steel vehicles that travel at high speed.

    Vehicles don’t travel on sidewalks, they are for pedestrians. Conversely, if you’re not a car, stay off the road…end of any needless bicyclists deaths or injuries.

    Put your energy into getting bike paths funded and built instead of trying to put someone in jail that accidentally hits a biker that shouldn’t be riding on a road.

    I’d like to climb telephone poles and touch the wires but I know it would kill me. The same thought process should apply to idiot bicyclists that want to peddle on the road.

  • Copy of my comment posted on PilotOnline:

    I will be joining the ride on Saturday to show my support. I’d like to see a dedicated bike path on Shore Drive.

    The tone of this discussion is a little surprising to me. There are a few voices that seem to be suggesting, more or less, that “might makes right,” or that “because I’m in a car and it’s fast and heavy, you should get out of my way.” It seems to me that the exact opposite is true. Because a car is heavy, fast and dangerous to smaller lighter vehicles, it is the responsibility of the driver to handle it carefully, avoid obstacles, and prevent injury to others. “With great power comes great responsibility,” after all.

  • Jason – Please do your research before making such inflammatory and hostile comments – and I wouldn’t openly admit to “love bumping” cyclists or excessive use of the horn either. That is road rage, and physical assault, and it could get you locked up. Respectfully, you need to read the Code of Virginia. For your convenience two significant sections are provided below. I am a cyclist who obeys traffic laws at least as rigorously as most motorists (most of whom routinely exceed the speed limit, talk on cell phones, put on makeup, eat, read, text when they should be focusing on the road). I am respectful of cars, and I consciously ride in a way that poses the least inconvenience to my fellow road users And, yes, I pay lots of road taxes – because I own three cars. Now I do not mean to suggest that cyclists should ride on any road without restraint – many roads are already banned to cyclists. More importantly, there are some roads where it would be insanity to do so, no matter how legal. But to suggest that cyclists have no right to be on any road that you use, or far worse, that you have the right to harass and even physically assault them because they annoy you is not only technically wrong, it’s morally bankrupt and it’s absurd. How would you feel if an 18 wheeler on I-81 “tapped” you because he wanted your lane, or bumped yofrom behind because he wanted to exceed the speed limit – by more than you did? Should we ban cars from interstates because trucks use them, and they are bigger? Think it through.

    By the way – driving a vehicle on Virignia roads is a REVOCABLE PRIVILEGE – not an inalienable right. Right to ride a bike? Irrevocable short of incarceration – it’s an exercise of the constitutional right of freedom of movement. Please respect the rights of others and think before you act. Also bear in mind that if more people rode biles for short trips, commuting etc., there would be MORE not less room on the road for you and your car. Ideally, we would have more bike lanes, or even dedicated bikeways – not just recreational paths through parks – real througoughfares to get from A to B. It works all over the world – it can work here. Until then – please be safe and speak from an informed perspective – you will be much more persuasive.

    On the chance you were just trying to be provocative and don’t really you think cyclists should be run over like squirrels – Please forgive my lecturing.

    § 46.2-800. Riding bicycles, electric personal assistive mobility devices, electric power-assisted bicycles, or mopeds; riding or driving animals.

    Every person riding a bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, moped, or an animal or driving an animal on a highway shall be subject to the provisions of this chapter and shall have all of the rights and duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle, unless the context of the provision clearly indicates otherwise.

    The provisions of subsections A and C of § 46.2-920 applicable to operation of emergency vehicles under emergency conditions shall also apply, mutatis mutandis, to bicycles, electric personal assistive mobility devices, electric power-assisted bicycles, and mopeds operated under similar emergency conditions by law-enforcement officers.

    (Code 1950, § 46-183; 1958, c. 541, § 46.1-171; 1980, c. 456; 1981, c. 585; 1989, c. 727; 1994, c. 176; 2001, c. 834; 2002, c. 254.)

    § 46.2-839. Passing bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, moped, animal, or animal-drawn vehicle.

    Any driver of any vehicle overtaking a bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, moped, animal, or animal-drawn vehicle proceeding in the same direction shall pass at a reasonable speed at least two feet to the left of the overtaken bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, moped, animal, or animal-drawn vehicle and shall not again proceed to the right side of the highway until safely clear of such overtaken bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, moped, animal, or animal-drawn vehicle.

    (1981, c. 585, § 46.1-208.1; 1989, c. 727; 1999, c. 999; 2001, c. 834; 2002, c. 254; 2004, cc. 947, 973.)

  • Jason – PS – The first paved roads were lobbied for by cyclists – whose use of roads predates the invention of the automobile. Cyclists requested paving with macadam, because roads in those days were usually just crushed stone aggregate, and growing use by automobiles, long before there was a road tax or a highway trust fund, by the way, were tearing up the roads leaving deep ruts, potholes and generally endangering both cyclists, and horseback riders, horses, and those who rode in carriages. The automobile is a great invention – but it is not a higher form of life entitled to infinite deference and privilege. And don’t forget about the walnut brained cyclists who invented another great transporation tool – the airplane.

  • My comments were actually directed to both Driver and Jason

  • The ignorance of some motorists astounds me. They think because they are granted a driver’s license by DMV that they have a RIGHT to the road. Think again. That priviledge can be revoked at any time. As a responsible cyclist who was struck almost a year ago by an irresponsible motorist (elderly 87 year old man with advanced glaucoma and very, VERY poor vision) and almost killed, it truly angers me when some motorists spout their nonsense about running me over like a bug, squirrel, etc because I cost them a few seconds on their drive home. Isn’t a human life worth more than a few seconds???

    Well… as a police officer, I will be glad to help DMV revoke as many drivers’ licenses as possible, that have been erroneously granted to irresponsible, aggressive, impatient, immature motorists who feel that they are more important because they are driving a car at the present moment and I am not.

  • § 46.2-800. Riding bicycles, electric personal assistive mobility devices, electric power-assisted bicycles, or mopeds; riding or driving animals.
    Every person riding a bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, moped, or an animal or driving an animal on a highway shall be subject to the provisions of this chapter and shall have all of the rights and duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle, unless the context of the provision clearly indicates otherwise.
    The provisions of subsections A and C of § 46.2-920 applicable to operation of emergency vehicles under emergency conditions shall also apply, mutatis mutandis, to bicycles, electric personal assistive mobility devices, electric power-assisted bicycles, and mopeds operated under similar emergency conditions by law-enforcement officers.
    § 46.2-857. Driving two abreast in a single lane.
    A person shall be guilty of reckless driving who drives any motor vehicle, including any motorcycle, so as to be abreast of another vehicle in a lane designed for one vehicle, or drives any motor vehicle, including any motorcycle, so as to travel abreast of any other vehicle traveling in a lane designed for one vehicle. However, this section shall not apply to (i) any validly authorized parade, motorcade, or motorcycle escort, or law-enforcement officers driving motorcycles while on official duty; (ii) a motor vehicle traveling in the same lane of traffic as a bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, electric power-assisted bicycle, or moped; nor shall it apply to (iii) any vehicle when lawfully overtaking and passing one or more vehicles traveling in the same direction in a separate lane.

  • To all bike riders: why do you think you have the right to ride down the middle of the road at 15 mph? Go find a bike path. The roads are for cars that can maintain the speed limit.

  • In the spirit of the holidays, I’ll agree that bicyclists shouldn’t break the law if you agree that auto drivers should break the law either. Deal?

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