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.