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So far, Washington legislators haven't leapt at the chance to add a vulnerable-user law. In working the Oregon Legislature, Thomas found that “the testimony of families and victims was critical in creating legislative support.” There's nothing like having one's nose rubbed in the human consequences of society's failure to protect cyclists and pedestrians. Hiller says that legislators who have had constituents killed or maimed by negligent drivers tend to be the most enthusiastic supporters of a vulnerable-user law. Having a constituent creamed by a careless motorist “seems to make believers out of legislators,” Hiller says. But some other legislators clearly harbor doubts. Some doubt that people should be penalized, criminally or otherwise, if they have acted without malicious intent, without the mens rea that is necessary for a crime. Do we really want to criminalize simple negligence?
Of course, in other contexts, we already do. A driver who endangers a highway worker can be charged with a gross misdemeanor, which carries a sentence of up to one year in jail. A driver who kills a cyclist by, say, failing to yield the right-of-way cannot.
Still, “we may decide that criminal penalties aren't the way we want to go,” Hiller says. He says he's willing to look at enhanced civil penalties, if — as in Oregon — that's what the Legislature will pass. Some of his allies were not — in fact, some said they'd oppose a bill that did not carry criminal sanctions — but he says that since the start of November, they've changed their minds. Some people who want a bill have said all along that they'd rather not destroy the driver's life, as well as the victim's. In general, Hiller says, “people are looking for justice, not vengeance.”
They're looking for a modicum of legal protection, too. “If the justice system isn't about protecting the vulnerable,” Hiller asks, “what is it about?”
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