Over the past several months, I’ve devoted some energy into seeing some new laws enacted that would help to protect cyclists and pedestrians from negligent drivers. SB 5838 would have held drivers accountable when their negligence resulting in bodily harm or death to “vulnerable roadway users” such as cyclists and pedestrians. You can read a bit about the bill here (includes links to material provided by the Cascade Bicycle Club, and to the text of SB 5838 itself).
When the 2010 version of the bill surfaced, I contacted Senator Rodney Tom, who represents my district, and asked for his support. You can read about that unsatisfying exchange here. He responded with a form letter. My wife received a largely identical response, as did others who contacted him for support of the bill. He expressed concern about enacting punitive laws affecting drivers, but not really any concern about the cyclists and pedestrians the negligent drivers might kill or injure.
I attended a State Senate Judiciary hearing during which the bill was discussed. You can read about that experience here. It should have been clear to me then that this bill was not a priority for the senators. But it squeaked through with a vote of 5-3. Then – the bill did not make it to the floor in time for a vote. They call this fate “dying on the calendar”.
A week or so after the bill died on the calendar, I attended a town hall meeting hosted by my 48th district state representatives Ross Hunter and Deborah Eddy, as well as Senator Rodney Tom. I rode to this event on my bicycle I sat in the front row clad in biking clothes, holding 8×10 pictures of myself in a hospital bed with tubes snaking into my nose and mouth. I held them so that Reps Hunter and Eddy, and Senator Tom could see them as they spoke. I spoke to all of them after the meeting, and received assurance from Reps Hunter and Eddy that they supported the bill. Senator Tom was less clear, but did mention that he had been concerned about how harsh last year’s version was. You can read about the meeting here. During the meeting Senator Tom invited us to send him questions, and promised to respond. Given my experience with Senator Tom, I was skeptical, but gave it a try.
Four days later, I received a rather non-committal response from Senator Tom. He thanked me for my mail, but never gave indication as to whether or not he himself supported sb5838. On the other Hand, Reps Hunter and Eddy made their support for the bill very clear, when I’d spoken to them. So I sent Senator Tom the following message :
You might have indicated support for this when we spoke at the town hall
meeting, but I’m not sure of it. Is this a bill you support as written
I received no response. Nearly two weeks later, I sent this follow-up message to Senator Tom :
I still haven’t gotten a response to my question regarding your support of
the Vulnerable Roadway Users Bill. Frankly, it’s easier to support someone
who I might disagree with than someone who seems unwilling to commit on
issues, or simply doesn’t respond to questions. This is the second or third
time I’ve had this same experience with you. I’ll also point out that it is
in direct conflict with the assertion you made in the town hall meeting last
month – when you invited us to ask you questions like this.
I cannot in good conscience vote for someone who is either non-committal or
unresponsive on issues of basic safety.
I do understand that this bill no longer has a hope of passing in this
year’s legislative session, but definitely hope that it will receive more
active consideration next year.
Part of the reason I asked you whether or not you supported SB 5838, was
that when we spoke about this at the town hall meeting, you made a point of
telling me you felt that last year’s version was ‘too harsh’ on negligent
drivers – similar to a previous response I received from you via email.
Given the changes reflected in this year’s version, I need to hear where you
stand on this issue now.
The person who hit me was convicted of ‘inattentive driving’, and for being
uninsured. Whereas he was able to simply drop a check into the mail, I
spent a month in the hospital, was unable to work, drive, or to be an active
engaged parent to my two daughters for months. My family and I are still
healing from the poor judgment this driver demonstrated. As you and your
wife are avid cyclist yourselves, I would expect that this is an issue
you’ve given lots of careful thought to.
My goal here is not to advocate for a punitive law. It is merely to raise
awareness and accountability for those exercising the privilege of driving.
The bill in question went a ways towards that goal with the components of
education and community service for those convicted of exercising poor
judgment on the road when it results in bodily harm or death.
thanks for your time and consideration,
I received the following response less than an hour later :
Thank you for the follow up. I’m sorry I was not able to get back to you until now. I receive hundreds of email, letters, and hotlines daily.
As an avid bicyclist who has done the Seattle to Portland bike ride and whose wife rides every single day, I understand your frustration with the way our current laws are written, which basically provide no protection for bicyclists. I however believe that there are better ways to address the issue than in the punitive manner in which the current version of Senate Bill 5838 does.
It’s human nature when one is harmed, especially when one is killed, to seek some kind of recourse to somehow make up for the tragic loss. The problem with that is no matter what we do the loss will still be there. America has the highest incarceration rate in the free world, yet our crime rates are not any lower. Criminalizing accidents is not going to change driver behavior. People are not going to stop dialing on their cell phones, which is probably the #1 driver distraction.
I would hate to see a normally law abiding citizen with a family be thrown in jail and/or prison simply because they had a momentary lapse in judgment. That basically puts every one of us at risk for a prison sentence and I believe that is far beyond the purpose of our criminal justice system. A substitute for the original bill will soon be introduced that changes the imposed penalty to an enhanced infraction. This fines the driver, will require the driver to attend a driver safety course, and require completion of community service within one year in order to retain their license and avoid a larger fine. This more reasonable approach is one I can accept. Unfortunately the bill did not have a chance to be heard on the Senate floor before a crucial cut-off last month. This essentially prevents the bill from progressing further this session.
I’ve been a strong advocate for trying to get money to not only build bike lanes, but to maintain them. As a bicyclist there is nothing more frustrating than having a bike lane you cannot ride in because all the sticks and rocks make passage with anything other than a mountain bike impossible. I’ve also been a strong advocate for the reconstruction of the 520 bridge that will finally add a bike path to the bridge crossing, making easy access to the Burke-Gilman trail a safe alternative to those that want to ride recreationally.
Again, I want to thank you for your involvement and expressing your opinion and hope to address the core issue of bicycle safety in a manner that tries to alleviate accidents in the first place.
Problem is, other than the part where he tells me how busy he is, this is line-for-line identical to the form letters both my wife and I received concerning last year’s version of the bill. He expresses concern about holding a negligent driver accountable, tells us that he likes to build bike lanes, but declines support for sb 5838. Also – he only does so when asked repeatedly – apparently lacking the political courage to make his position clear.
The punchline to this whole thing is that yesterday the Washington State Senate voted to allow golf carts to travel the roads.
If you are a voter living in the 48th district – you (and I) can certainly do better.