In transportation, requiring potential damage-causers to be careful translates into policies that, at least in several European countries, assume that the operator of any vehicle that hits or dangerously crowds a “vulnerable road user” is by default primarily responsible for the incident and any negative effects. While this “strict liability” formulation would probably run afoul of the USA’s constitutional right of being innocent until proven guilty, Oregon has created “enhanced penalties for careless drivers who hurt vulnerable users.” And other activists are pushing to establish a “rebuttable assumption” of vehicle-operator responsibility in similar situations.
Of course, no matter what the law or who has what rights, defensive driving in both cars and on bikes is the ultimate defense against harm on the road. As the slogan correctly puts it, “You may be dead right; but you will still be dead.” Still, adoption of Vulnerable Road User laws can clarify the criminal burden of responsibility for street incidents and simplify some insurance claims. It is possible that they will also change the context for cyclist behavior and even begin to address the inequality of road conditions in low-income versus better-off areas
Vulnerable Road User laws won’t solve every safety problem. But they will certainly move us in the right direction.
Some of the eight states that currently have Vulnerable Road Users (VRU) laws focus on the physical injuries caused by a collision. Some try to exclude “true” accidents by limiting culpability to careless, inattentive, reckless, or negligent drivers who (in New York’s words) “operate a vehicle in a careless or imprudent manner or without due regard for road, weather and traffic conditions then existing…[or] fails to give full time and attention…or fails to maintain a proper lookout.”
Who is included as a Vulnerable Road User seems to reflect a combination of technical and political concerns. The more groups included the broader the potential coalition that can be organized to support passing the new law. However, getting too broad risks internal conflicts since some of the groups may not feel comfortable with each other. The definitions always contain pedestrians and bicycles and then can expand, as does the model language proposed by the League Of American Bicyclist’s new Legal Affairs Committee, to include people using wheelchairs, farm tractors, skateboards, in-line and roller-skates, horse-drawn carriages, and even motorcyclists, scooters, and mopeds. Oregon, whose 2007 law was the nation’s first, includes farm animals being tended by a keeper. (No one yet seems to have specified electric-assist bikes, or used locational definitions such as “anyone in a school zone,” or other kind of safety zone around playgrounds, public pools, elderly residences, medical facilities, etc.).
There is some overlap between Vulnerable Road User laws and new cell-phone inspired laws penalizing “distracted driving,” as well as laws requiring that cars keep a certain distance away from bicyclists when passing (something that might be more complicated on narrow urban streets). This is also a relationship between VRU protection and anti-harassment policies such as the one recently passed in Los Angeles that prohibits “physical assault or attempted physical assault, threats of physical injury, intentional distraction and forceful removal from street, among others.”
Most of the VRU laws prescribe penalties including suspension of the operator’s license for some time, fines, jail time, community service, and taking driver training classes – with completion of the last two often allowing the dropping of the first three. Several of the laws require at least one court appearance to increase the gravity of the process rather than letting the motorist simply pay the fine by mail. A major issue is the additional burden on often already over-loaded state agencies of supervising the community service, verifying the training class attendance, or dealing with the court appearances without additional funds for staff time.
There are two usually unremarked aspects of these laws. First, they all use the word “vehicle” when describing the potentially responsible operator. In all states, bicycles are legally considered vehicles (as are motorcycles, scooters, and bigger mopeds) whose drivers have the same rights and responsibilities as motorists. So the prohibition on careless, inattentive, or illegal behavior would seemingly also apply to cyclists who run into any other of the named Vulnerable Road Users – most importantly pedestrians but the others as well. This means that cyclists who fly through busy intersections regardless of crossing traffic or traffic lights would be liable for any consequence of their actions.
Changing cyclist behavior will require more than new laws. But this kind of law is much more likely to be noticed and enforced than current traffic signal regulations, if only because of the physical harm that results from its violation. The combination of guilt and punishment is likely to have an effect! At a minimum, it will generate a lot of nervous conversations and, as a recent Boston Globe article pointed out, “To really change how a group of people thinks and behaves, it turns out, you don’t need to change what’s inside of them, or appeal to their inner sense of virtue. You just have to convince them that everybody else is doing it.”
In addition to reducing injuries, Vulnerable Road User laws might also begin redressing some of the enormous inequalities of our transportation system. A recent study pointed out that low income neighborhoods are likely to have bigger roads, busier intersections, and up to two-and-a-half times more traffic than wealthier areas. At the same time, low-income families are more likely to have to rely on walking or transit to get around, resulting in a moving-car injury rate nearly six times higher than in high income areas. The best solutions are reducing traffic volume and slowing speeds through traffic calming. But changing driver behavior would also significantly help.
In Massachusetts, MassBike took the lead in submitting a VRU bill in 2011. Commonwealth law already provides a wider range of penalties for dangerous driving than in most other states, including license suspension, fines, and jail time. However, there was little application of these laws when bicyclists or pedestrians were the victims. This was partly caused by the law enforcement system’s ignorance of their applicability but mostly because police usually felt these incidents were “accidents” and didn’t want to charge drivers with violations that could lead to imprisonment.
To both raise awareness and increase flexibility the proposed bill would have explicitly defined “vulnerable road users” to include bicyclists and pedestrians. It would also allow community service and/or education as a flexible middle-ground penalty between a mere traffic ticket and jail. In anticipation of resubmitting the bill in 2012, MassBike is exploring adding other groups to the list of vulnerable road users such as people on wheel chairs, road repair workers, and others. The past year’s effort made it clear success requires activating a broad coalition to begin talking to legislators from the very start of the session. And it’s best to enter the sausage-making legislative process with a larger package of bills in order to make sure something gets through the inevitable give-and-take negotiations.
Vulnerable Road User laws do not substitute for better infrastructure or improved driver education. And punishing people is not always the best way to teach a lesson. But these laws can at least prevent victims from being doubly abused by both injury and blame.
STATE’S WITH VULNERABLE ROAD USER LAWS
(thanks to Matt Wempe at the League of American Bicylcists for the links…)
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