The push to increase penalties for drivers who severely injure or kill bicyclists, pedestrians and others on Wisconsin roads will reach a new threshold Wednesday when the Senate transportation committee votes on a vulnerable user law.
The bill first proposed in 2011 and championed by the Wisconsin Bike Fed has not advanced to a committee vote in earlier legislative sessions.
Both the Senate and Assembly transportation committees held hearings on the bill in October 2013. Widows and other survivors of people killed in roadway crashes made compelling arguments that the minimal fines imposed in more than a dozen deaths aren’t adequate.
Fines against drivers who committed a traffic offense that killed bicyclists have ranged from $125 to $1,311, in a dozen cases over the past four years.
Under the vulnerable user law, those motorists would face a misdemeanor criminal charge, a $10,000 fine and nine months in jail. (Click here to read the bill).
“We have heard from people who have lost loved ones and the person got off with a small fine,” said Sarah Archibald, a policy analyst in State Sen. Luther Olsen’s office. “It doesn’t square with the loss of life.”
Olsen, a Republican from Ripon, introduced the bill and is one of 11 co-sponsors in the Senate and the Assembly.
The bill is intended to fill a gap in Wisconsin statutes and give prosecutors an alternative between a felony charge with a 10-year prison sentence and a traffic citation with a cash penalty. District attorneys have said it’s too difficult to win a prosecution for homicide by negligent driving in cases of inattentive driving or failure to yield the right-of-way, even when fatal.
“Pretty much everyone we talk to agrees with us that our current laws have a big gap between simple traffic tickets and vehicular homicide,” said Dave Schlabowske, deputy director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed. “The Vulnerable User bill is an attempt to fill that gap, both to discourage inattentive driving, but also to give a sense of justice to the families and friends of those killed by inattentive drivers.”
Sheboygan County Dist. Atty. Joe DeCecco said the misdemeanor alternative would have been helpful in two cases he prosecuted in recent years: the deaths of Troy Tousey and Allen Redensek.
“I’d like to have that option,” he said.
At least six states have adopted vulnerable user laws with increased penalties for driving offenses that kill or cause great bodily harm.
In Wisconsin, the law identifies vulnerable users as pedestrians, bicyclists, people on mopeds or motor bicycles, operators of farm equipment, in-line skaters, police and other emergency responders performing their duties and citizens rendering emergency assistance.
The goal of getting our Vulnerable User Law passed is to reinforce the idea that when we are behind the wheel of a motor vehicle and sharing the road with more vulnerable road users, we must drive with extra care,” Schlabowske wrote in a previous blog post. “When we are passing a farmer on a tractor, that is not the time change the station on the radio.
“More than 1,400 Wisconsin farmers have been hit by cars since 2005, including 25 who were killed. When we are driving next to someone jogging on the shoulder, someone riding a bicycle, a sheriff assisting a breakdown, or a horseback rider, we need to pay full attention to the act of driving our vehicles.”
Failure to pay attention and obey traffic laws has been the cause of crashes that killed at least 20 bicyclists in the past three years, based on police and sheriff’s reports. Criminal charges were filed in seven of those cases, including two in which the driver was allegedly drunk.
Over that span of time, 31 bicyclists have been killed on Wisconsin roads. The death toll for pedestrians stands at 111 in 2011, 2012 and part of 2013.
With the committee vote scheduled Wednesday, the bill could move to a vote in the Senate in the current legislative session, which ends in April.