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Should California Pass Vulnerable Road User Laws?

When you think of laws that govern the road, your first thought might jump straight to cars. Speed limits, traffic laws and several other local and state rules apply to people who drive on four wheels. Increasingly, however, local governments are enacting vulnerable road user laws for protecting the rest of us traversing the streets without a motor or protective steel shell.

These laws apply to pedestrians or cyclists using roads and can “increase protection for bicyclists and other road users who are not in cars,” writes New York Bicycling Coalition. “They are relatively new and states have chosen to protect vulnerable road users in a variety of ways.”

So far, nine states have enacted laws since 2008, when Oregon led the way, and many municipalities are adding ordinances to their books to increase protections for those commuting on bikes or by foot. More states are also adding anti-harassment laws that penalize actions such as throwing objects at cyclists and pedestrians.

Among the ways they can protect such road users include applying harsher penalties for violating existing laws that impact a set of road users (such as pedestrians or cyclists) and creating new laws that are geared toward those road users.

Most often, these laws increase fines and civil liability for drivers who seriously injure pedestrians or cyclists, or who put others on the road at risk.

How Vulnerable Road User Laws Impact You

Currently, only a handful of California municipalities have vulnerable road user-related laws enacted, but they are catching on across the state.

In the last decade, Los Angles, Berkeley, Sunnyvale, Sebastopol and Santa Rosa have all adopted anti-harassment ordinances, which protect bikers from “intentional threats, assaults, or harassment by motorists.” This is in addition to negligence, which is essential unintentional but careless behavior, under which most personal injury claims are brought.

Under most vulnerable road user laws or anti-harassment ordinances, cyclists can bring a lawsuit against a vehicle driver in civil court — which has a lesser burden of proof than criminal court — making it easier for cyclists to get compensated for their injuries and damages.

That’s important because it can sometimes be difficult for a cyclist to garner enough proof needed for a criminal case. And, lower economic damages in bicycle accident cases than car accident cases may prevent legal action altogether.

“Vulnerable road users, unlike automobile users, may lack the evidence and expensive property damage that is created in a car crash,” explains the New York Bicycling Coalition. “Statutory civil penalties may provide an incentive for lawyers to work with vulnerable road users to recover damages and recognize the seriousness of vulnerable road user crashes.”

Essentially, the laws are one more tool in the toolbox for cyclists who are at an increased risk of facing danger on the road in an era where preventable death incidents have increased 44% in the past decade and non-fatal preventable incidents increased 5% from 2020 to 2021.

Challenges of the System

The idea of vulnerable road user laws, which are more common in Europe where urban cycling is a part of everyday life, doesn’t come without a few catches in the American justice system.

For starters, in 2007, Oregon lawmakers were at first hesitant to move forward on the law because there’s already so much crime to stay on top of.

“Any effort to create new crimes and inmates for our already overburdened state court and corrections system would face widespread resistance,” Portland attorney Ray Thomas wrote of the journey to create the law.

That’s when the civil penalty came into play and helped move the bill forward, making the proposal a reality. A civil penalty means that it can be enforced through a civil lawsuit, by the cyclist with the help of an attorney — and without needing police or prosecutor involvement. It ended up being a model for the rest of the country and helped solve a problem without creating more work for prosecutors already struggling to keep up on work, and having to prioritize the most serious cases.

In other jurisdictions, enforcement of vulnerable road user laws have been a challenge. In a 2013 case in Washington, a woman was t-boned by a driver who ran a stop sign on her way to class. She broke her tibia, both wrists, and her nose, and chipped her femur, according to reporting from StreetsBlog USA. Enforcement of the law that was supposed to protect her ended up being a long drawn out process.

“We were most interested in a citation to show proof of liability,” the woman wrote. “Collisions like this just aren’t taken very seriously – the cyclist gets taken away in the ambulance, and the driver moves on with their lives. It’s just not right.”

While she did go on to win her case through the vulnerable road user law in place, the woman and her attorney said more education needed to be done about the law.

Personal injury attorneys and bicycle accident attorneys in the San Francisco Bay Area will tell you that the same challenges exist here in our community. Even when drivers break existing laws and cause great harm to a cyclist, the driver is rarely charged with a crime

More on the Horizon

Thanks to the  $1.2-trillion Federal infrastructure bill passed in November, it’s likely that many Bay Area communities will see an increase in infrastructure focused on “vulnerable road users.” Whether that will translate to more laws is yet to be determined, but there will be more of a focus on safety for cyclists and pedestrians.

The now-law dictates that states devote 15 percent of their Highway Safety Improvement Program dollars to saving vulnerable road users’ lives if they make up 15 percent of their roadway deaths or more. StreetsBlog USA reports that this move will impact nearly all coastal communities and a handful of upper midwestern states, too.

The infrastructure bill also revises the crash reporting standard. The hope is that this will give lawmakers and policy analysts a better look into accidents involving vulnerable road users.

Indirectly, that could mean more laws could be on the horizon, as laws are typically developed because of correlating data. With more knowledge and more insight, there’s a greater chance local and state lawmakers will find a renewed call to support laws that protect cyclists and encourage more to hit the road.