Amazing article by Daniel Duane in Sunday’s New York Times. Here’s how he starts: “Everyone who knows me knows that I love cycling and that I’m also completely freaked out by it.” With a start like that, you might not be surprised where he ends up: cycling is fun, but dangerous.
His main point: penalties for drivers who hit and kill or maim cyclists are not nearly strong enough. Here’s my favorite line from the article: “If your 13-year-old daughter bikes to school tomorrow inside a freshly painted bike lane, and a driver runs a stop sign and kills her and then says to the cop, “Gee, I so totally did not mean to do that,” that will most likely be good enough.”
He’s right. If the hit was not intentional, and the driver was not drunk, people who kill cyclists – and pedestrians, by the way – generally do not get any jail time, or even a serious fine.
The problem is that if the State charges the driver with, say, involuntary manslaughter, chances are pretty good that a jury will think something along the lines of, “Well, those cyclists are always running red lights and making quick lane-changes; that car driver could have been me. It was just an accident. I’m not going to put the car driver behind bars for years.”
Oregon has a law, ORS 801.608, which is known as the “vulnerable user law.” ORS 801.608 defines a “vulnerable user of a public way” as a person using farm equipment, a skateboard, roller skates, a scooter, or a bicycle. ORS 811.135 then allows the court to impose additional penalties on anyone who seriously injures or kills a “vulnerable user.” These penalties include: 100 to 200 hours of community service, taking a traffic safety course, a fine of up to $12,500, and suspension of the person’s driver’s license for up to a year. BUT the fine and suspension must be waived if the person completes the community service and traffic safety class.
In my opinion, that’s pretty slim punishment for killing someone. 200 hours of community service and a traffic safety class?
What could we do differently? Well, here’s how they do it in the Netherlands: a suspended prison sentence of a month or two, 240 hours of community service, and, importantly, a license revocation of 18 months. Obviously, much harsher punishments, but still gentle enough that hopefully a jury would actually be willing to impose it.
Oh yeah, AND they have an accident reconstruction crew go out and figure out what went wrong, and if it was preventable they will change the intersection to make it safer.
Look, people who kill cyclists unintentionally are not criminals. It really was an accident. But, as Mr. Duane wrote in his article, “the total absence of consequence does little to focus the mind.” And as the Dutch would say in that article, the person who was responsible must be held responsible.
Am I saying that Oregon should become the Netherlands? No. I am saying that the lives of Oregonians are worth more than nothing.
Even if they ride bicycles.