A new law might do more to protect bikers and pedestrians, if only it were enforced. Credit: furtwangl/Flickr
On March 18, the 29-year old driver of a pickup truck hit and fatally injured 19-year old Caleb Shoop as he rode his bike through the crosswalk at 61st Ave. NE in Kenmore. A car in the northbound lane stopped to let Shoop cross. The pickup driver, in the northbound lane, didn't. The driver struck Shoop, who died, in Harborview, on March 21.
The penalty for killing Caleb Shoop? A $175 ticket.
The King County Prosecutors Office reviewed the case for potential felony charges, but did not pursue vehicular homicide because there was no evidence that speed, drugs or alcohol contributed to the collision. A King County detective issued the $175 fine after King County Prosecutors determined they had no felony case.
There is legal recourse for pursuing further penalty in the case of accidents involving bicycles. It's called the Vulnerable User Law.
Enacted in 2012, the Vulnerable User Law created a civil infraction that increases penalties for drivers who, through their negligence, injure or kill vulnerable road users; that is, people who are walking, biking, in wheelchairs, on motorized scooters, etc. Specifically, the law states that if a driver commits a traffic infraction — speeding, texting while driving, running a stop sign, failing to yield at a crosswalk — that results in serious injury or death to a vulnerable road user, that driver is subject to an automatic fine of $5,000 and a 90-day license suspension.
The law also allows judges to compel the defendant to perform community service hours or take driver's ed classes. Because it is a civil infraction, it is typically up to the police officers investigating a case to make the decision about Vulnerable User.
Press Secretary Dan Donahoe said the County Prosecutor's Office referred the case on to the Kenmore Prosecutor’s Office, which would have been responsible for filing a Vulnerable User Law infraction. The Kenmore Prosecutor’s Office did not return a call asking if the Vulnerable User Law’s stiffer penalties were applicable in Shoop’s case.
John Duggan, a Seattle attorney who specializes in bicycle law, says the Vulnerable User Law likely could have been applied. “The fact that they cited him with an infraction makes me think Vulnerable User was applicable," said Duggan. "At the least, it should’ve been considered and probably charged and left to a judge to let it stick.”
Because the Shoop case fell outside of his jurisdiction and he did not have the investigative report, Seattle City Attorney’s Office Deputy Chief of Staff John Schochet declined to speak directly about it. But Schochet said because, “the law is designed to be used where any vulnerable users are seriously injured or killed as a result of the negligence of a driver, this is the sort of case we would certainly look at applying the vulnerable user infraction.”
The problem with the Vulnerable User Law is that nobody knows about it. “It’s one thing to get a law passed, but you need people aware and enforcing it," said Duggan. "It’s not just drivers; cops and city attorneys just don’t know about it … if you were to line up 50 cops I’d bet most of them have never heard [the vulnerable user law].”
In fairness, the Vulnerable User Law has been applied in previous cases. In October 2012, Trent Graham was struck and killed by a pickup truck while he was riding his bike along Evergreen Way SW in Everett. Snohomish County Prosecutors used the Vulnerable User Law to increase penalties to $10,287.
In September 2012, Heather Barnett, a client of Duggans, was hit by an SUV while she was biking down 8th Ave NW in Ballard. She suffered severe injuries and ran up more than $100,000 in medical bills. The City Attorney’s Office used the Vulnerable User Law to seek additional penalties after Barnett’s boyfriend pressed the issue. The driver who hit Barnett was eventually fined $11,184.
Since that case, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office has asked that police send all incidents involving collisions between motor vehicles and vulnerable users to the Attorney’s office to determine whether Vulnerable User Law charges can be filed.
No monetary fine can bring back the dead, but many believe that the stiffer penalties allowed under the Vulnerable User Law are far more in line with the death and damage done in these cases than a $175 ticket. Unfortunately, those cases are the exception.
“I have 90 bicycle versus car cases and Vulnerable User should be applied to pretty much all of them,” said Duggan. “Any case [in which there is] even a fractured finger, it applies.”
Duggan points to other awareness campaigns such as "Click It or Ticket" (for seatbelts) and Cover Your Load (for securing items in the open beds of pickup trucks and trailers) as safety successes. Advocacy groups like Cascade Bicycle Club and Washington Bikes, he argues, along with city governments should consider similar approaches with the Vulnerable User Law.
“We want to make the roads safer for all users," said Duggan, "cyclists, pedestrians, car drivers. Whatever you can do to educate and make people more aware, the better it is for everyone. Sometimes people need to be hit with a bigger fine or penalty to get that point across.”