The Vulnerable User Bill crafted to increase safety for bicyclists, pedestrians and others on Wisconsin roads has been slowed short of the finish line, with little time left for action this year.
Despite bipartisan and near-unanimous backing from the transportation committees in both houses, Republican leaders who control the Senate and Assembly have not scheduled the bill for a vote.
The current floor period ends Thursday, and it’s uncertain the measure will be taken up in the handful of floor sessions expected through late April and the end of legislative business, until 2015.
After three years of advocacy, the bill’s fate now rests almost entirely on the political desires of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Burlington) and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau).
“There is a sense of urgency,” said Dave Cieslewicz, executive director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed. “It’s near the finish line and we need to get it down those last 50 yards or so.”
Cieslewicz said supporters working with the legislature reported three or four Republican senators raised objections with Fitzgerald, and asked that he keep it from a full vote.
Adam Fultz, an aide in Sen. Fitzgerald’s office, said the majority leader has been updating other members of the Republican caucus on the bill, explaining the options it would provide prosecutors in the deaths of bicyclists and pedestrians. There has been no specific reason it has not been brought forward for a vote, he said.
First proposed nearly three years ago, the Vulnerable Users Law creates a misdemeanor criminal charge that prosecutors could issue against motorists who commit traffic violations and kill or severely injure vulnerable users: pedestrians, bicyclists, farm equipment operators, police and other emergency responders and citizen rendering emergency assistance.
Under current law, prosecutors must choose between a felony charge with a 10-year prison sentence or a civil citation. In a dozen recent cases, the penalty for killing someone on the road has ranged from $125 to $1,311. Click here for a list of victims and the fines levied in their deaths.
The misdemeanor charge would carry a maximum $10,000 and nine-month jail term.
Sheboygan County Dist. Atty. Joe DeCecco has lobbied for the misdemeanor option, and said he likely would have used it in two recent cases.
In addition, the law would require drivers’ education courses to include 30 minutes of teaching on vulnerable users and how to drive safely.
State Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) supports the measure and has been puzzled by the lack of progress since the committee votes in January.
“It has a broad mix of bipartisan support,” Larson said. “It should be uncontroversial. The weird part is we’re not sure why it’s not moving forward. Nobody is choosing this hill to die on.”
The bill may fail to move forward this year, in part because other issues have higher priority. Both the Assembly and Senate have focused on tax cuts, academic standards, deaths in police custody and strip searches in recent sessions.
They also took up bills regulating vegetation obstructing highway signs and public disclosure of dry cleaner licenses.
Larson noted that “no one is thinking about biking in the State Legislature right now.”
Cieslewicz recently posted a call to action on the Bike Fed web site, urging supporters to contact their legislators and push for a vote on the bill. The post includes information on how to reach individual legislators.
“It’s important because the vulnerable user law will increase bicyclists’ safety in two ways,” Cieslewicz said. “Drivers need to understand that if they kill or injure a cyclist through no fault of the cyclist, there are consequences. And there’s the 30 minutes of education in drivers’ ed courses.”