An act relating to negligent driving resulting in substantial bodily harm, great bodily harm, or death of a vulnerable user of a public way.
– From the Washington State Senate Bill Report on SB 5326.
For the past two years, Washington State has been considering a law that fills the gap between simple traffic tickets and crime, where the driver’s actions maim or kill someone. Last year, there was a Senate bill that made it out of committee. It didn’t make it to the floor before the deadline for house-senate debate. The technical term is that it apparently “died on the calendar”.
This time around there are very similar bills progressing through the state house and senate. These are SB 5326 and HR 1339.
I was contacted by Cascade Bicycle Club about joining them in Olympia for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill. So – on Friday January 21st, we found ourselves ready to share our stories in support on SB 5326.
You can find the video here. Discussion of SB 5326 begins about 31 minutes in. Testimony by families and accident victims begins around 59:50.
Four of us who were affected by negligent drivers got the opportunity to speak. Melissa Brulotte shared her account of how a negligent driver hit and killed her two year old daughter. Melissa herself was hit and injured, and her other children witnessed this terrible thing. Colleen Zakar shared her account of losing her nephew Kevin Black to a negligent driver – and told us a bit about the conversations they’d had with Kevin’s children about this. Their stories are incredibly stirring. They also establish a real connection from a driver’s actions to the people affected.
I shared this statement with the members of the committee :
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 the Vulnerable User Bill.
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 within the bike lane in line with the rules of the road, 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. It is fair to say that I’m lucky to be alive and speaking before you.
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, 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 full-time care. 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 (or drive) for nearly six 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 and dropping it in the mail.
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 this bill.
Thank you very much for your time.
The senators are optimistic that the bill will pass this time around. Last year, it was passed by the judiciary committee by a 5-3 vote. This time around the hope is that the vote is even more decisive. If you watch the video, you’ll note that there’s very little debate that the bill is a good idea in principle. The central point of debate was around the delineation between “reckless” and “negligent” driving (intent), and about whether they should consider making Negligent Driving II a criminal offense (verses an “enhanced violation”). Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles shared her story about being cut off by a truck while she was doing the Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic some years back. She’d been very lucky – she was bruised and rattled, but not too seriously injured.
An ironic footnote here is that Rodney Tom, our own state senator failed to support this bill last year. Cascade tells me that he’s on board this year. I have letter out to him, and to Ross Hunter and Deb Eddy (our state reps who supported this bill last year) to confirm their support now. I would encourage my fellow Washington State voters to contact their senators and representatives as well.
Engaging in the political process as a means to work for change is – interesting. I strongly believe that in this case, the real goal is both to hold drivers accountable for their actions and to build awareness that there’s a problem in the first place.
Taking this approach defuses the argument that victims want punitive laws. Having thought about this a lot, I know very well that a new law won’t erase what happened to me, nor would it even be applied to my own situation. But it will help prevent what happened to me from happening to others.