public hearing on the vulnerable roadway users bill

This morning I attended the Washington State Senate Judiciary Committee‘s hearing on SB 5838, also known as the Vulnerable Roadway Users Bill.  The experience was definitely interesting in a number of ways.  The good news is that the bill looks like it will pass in something close to its current form.  This time last year, the bill had been stuck in committee, with the vote tied 4-4.

Originally the plan was to make reckless driving resulting in serious injury or death to a pedestrian, cyclist, or anyone else deemed a vulnerable user into a criminal offense, rather than a simple traffic violation.  I don’t really have a problem with that, but apparently 3 members of the Washington State Senate Judiciary Committee did, so they made some changes.

Now, reckless driving which results in a serious injury or death will be deemed an "enhanced violation".  The offender will be subject to a $5000 fine, which could be satisfied by performing community service and attending a traffic safety course.

These changes would address the things I care most about.  They would go at the behaviors that cause accidents like mine.  They would provide a way for the offender to learn from their mistakes, and also provide an opportunity for them to do something positive.

Not having witnessed or participated in something like this before, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  To prepare, I wrote a brief statement that I could read if there was an opportunity.

Mr Chair, and members of the committee, I am Paul David from Kirkland. I am a very fortunate survivor of a negligent driver, representing myself before you today to discuss SB 5838.

On the morning of July 1st, 2008, I kissed my wife and two daughters goodbye, and set out to ride my bicycle to work. It was a nice morning, and I was travelling in the bike lane in moderate traffic when the driver of a Ford F150 Truck suddenly turned in front of me. The driver had seen me, and thought he’d be able to make it in front of me – he was in a hurry you see.

I struck his truck just behind his passenger door and rolled under. His rear wheel actually passed over my head. Biking helmets are generally not designed to support the several thousand pounds that an F150 weighs, so I guess it was a good thing that the driver was going pretty fast.

I sustained a collapsed lung, and many broken bones. I had a fracture to my c5 vertebrae – had this been one inch over to the right, I would have been killed or rendered a paraplegic. I suffered loss of vision in my left eye. Most seriously though, I suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury. A hemorrhage required that a flap of skull bone be removed to permit my brain to swell, then heal.

I spent a week in an induced coma in the ICU, and month in the hospital. I wore a helmet to protect my head for two months, until the bone flap was reattached to my skull. I spent much of that time unable to walk much, and requiring pretty much full-time supervision. I needed help with such things as bathing and getting to the bathroom. I was unable to be an active, engaged parent to my girls. I was unable to work for five months.

In contrast, the driver who hit me was able to drive off that very day, and return to life as usual.  He faced a $500 fine. It only would have been about half that, but he was also uninsured. Consider that for a minute. He exercised very poor judgment, nearly costing me my life. But he was able to simply drive away afterwards. In fact, he did not have to show up in court. Just had to drop a check in the mail, and be done with it.

Think about the positive effect that sentencing this driver to community service in a trauma center might have. He would see the consequences of his poor driving judgment up close, connecting people with his own actions. I imagine he’d remember doing something like that longer than writing a check.

Laws need not be punitive, but they do need to encourage people to practice their driving privileges with good judgment and with careful attention to others on the road. They need to understand and to remember that they are operating machines that have the power to take lives, or to profoundly alter them. This is possible with the passage of SB 5838.

Thank you very much for your time.

I also had a bunch of pictures from the hospital and from the early months of recovery enlarged.  My intent was to connect the driver’s poor judgment to the actual impact on people.  I figured that pictures of my family and I while I was in the hospital would do that.  You can view the pictures here if you’re interested.  Fair warning that some of them are disturbing.

So – I drove down to Olympia.  After finding one of the few parking spots, I walked over to find the meeting.  On the way, a guy I’d met a few evenings ago during an event at church shouted out to me.  His name is Ryan, and he’s an experienced bicyclist who has been hit a couple of times.  He was carpooling down with several other people, including a woman who had been invited to testify and tell her story of being run over in a crosswalk in South Seattle some years back. 

Upon arriving at the hearing room, there was a huge crowd.  Apparently the item being discussed immediately before SB 5838 was an assault weapons ban.  Naturally this drew a huge crowd of people – most of them against the legislation being discussed.  This is an important and worthy issue, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed that it had to be on the agenda for today.  The gun issue takes a bunch of energy, sometimes at the expense of other issues.  And this turned out to be the case today too.

After a sometimes heated discussion concerning the assault weapons ban, approximately 90% of the room emptied.  We listened to several invited witnesses testify on the bill.  A Thurston County judge was one of them, and he expressed concern either criminalizing reckless driving, or laying down such severe penalties.  There was some discussion about the legal aspects of creating an "enhanced" offense instead of calling this a criminal offense.  I have to admit the fine points of enhanced offense vs. criminal offense escaped me. 

The next witness was the woman I’d met earlier, as she arrived in the car with Ryan.  I’m blanking on her name just now.  It was difficult to listen to her story, because she clearly still felt lots of emotional pain about what happened.  Her injuries were severe enough to get her a discharge from the Army, and she had trouble finding work afterwards.  What she said was genuine, and conveyed the human impact that negligent driving can have.

The next witness was a bit random.  Senator Adam Kline, the Judiciary Committee chair has a policy of alternating witnesses for and against a given bill.  Originally, there were no witnesses against, so this guy volunteered.  I’m not sure what had brought him into the hearing in the first place, but the gist of his questions seemed to be about why the penalties for negligent driving should be so severe.  I simply don’t understand what people’s concerns about the size of the potential fine are about.  Given that we’re talking about instances in which bad driving behavior has rendered people unable to work, in some cases given them enormous out of pocket medical expenses, or actually killed someone – why is there such a wellspring of concern about the financial well-being of the offender ?  Seriously – even given my excellent medical insurance, the financial impact on us has been greater than that – and I would consider my situation a best-case scenario as far as that goes.  Suffice to say, I wasn’t sure what the gentleman hoped to accomplish by testifying.

The final witness was an experienced cyclist who rode extensively on rural roads, and had numerous encounters with belligerent drivers.  People had ridden close to him, cursed at him, and threatened him.  Apparently, where he lives, cycling provokes people. 

At this point, Chairman Kline called it done.  Given the scant opposition to the bill, he saw no point in continuing debate.  The minor disappointment to me is that I’d been next on the list to testify, so I was out of luck.  I left a copy of my statement and some pictures with a staff member, asking her to covey them to the committee members.  I’m not sure whether she actually will, or whether these things will have any sort of effect, but it made sense to try.

I left the hearing room, and entered into an active discussion in the hallway with a crowd of other cyclists, apparently disappointed that we’d been cut short.  A staffer trying to be helpful stood and listened to our stories.  I spoke with some of the other folks, and chatted a bit with a couple of reporters from the Seattle Times.

The Times reporter quoted me in the story she wrote about the hearing :

"Think about the positive effect that sentencing this driver to community-service in a trauma center might have," said Paul David, of Kirkland, who was severely injured in 2008. He spent a week in an induced coma after being hit by a truck while riding his bike. "They need to understand and to remember that they are operating machines that have power to take lives, or to profoundly alter them."

This idea actually came from my mother last year, before we were aware of this bill.  It was at Kris’ suggestion that I included this bit in my statement.  Big thanks to both of them for their ideas.

The hope is that the bill will pass.  It’s important to me that the penalties for ducking out of the community service remain high though.  The intent of the law would be to deter bad behavior, and to impart learning along the way.  Let’s not make it as simple as dropping a check in the mail.

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