A traffic ticket issued to the tow truck driver who made a deadly left turn into the path of a bicyclist on Mineral Point Rd. in Madison carries a $1,311 fine, the largest imposed in the death of a bicyclist in recent years.
The penalty, however, still falls well short of what some consider just for killing on Wisconsin roads, and the punishments put forth in a vulnerable user law championed by the Wisconsin Bike Fed. Instead of the $1,300 traffic ticket, Mitchell Edge would face a criminal charge, a $10,000 fine and nine months in jail, under the bill now pending in the Wisconsin Legislature.
Those enhanced penalties would apply in other cases in which motorists severely injure or kill vulnerable roadway users by failing to yield the right-of-way, failing to pay attention or passing improperly. Vulnerable users would include pedestrians, bicyclists, in-line skaters; people driving motorcycles, farm equipment and horse-drawn vehicles; and emergency responders and those rendering emergency assistance on the road.
The proposed law has received public hearings in the Assembly and Senate transportation committees, but no votes have been scheduled.
The Rader case: According to police reports, Edge was westbound on Mineral Point Rd., on Madison’s west side, about 3:45 p.m. on May 24, when he turned through the intersection southbound toward S. Yellowstone Dr.
Rader, 47, an avid cyclist returning from a Friday afternoon ride to Paoli, was eastbound in the bike lane on Mineral Point and unable to stop before he crashed into the tow truck. He suffered massive injuries, including a fatal blow to the head.
Prosecutors in the Dane County District Attorney’s office reviewed the circumstances of the crash, and declined to pursue criminal charges for homicide by negligent use of a vehicle. Madison police cited Edge, 23, for failing to yield the right of way while making a left turn, a driving infraction that carries the $1,000 fine when it kills someone. It was his second traffic citation in two months, and followed a speeding ticket he received in Iowa County in March.
He is scheduled to appear in Madison Municipal court on Jan. 7.
In addition to the fine, Edge could have his license suspended for one year and be required to take a course on right-of-way rules and motorcycle, pedestrian, and bicycle awareness.
That type of instruction would be required for all students in drivers’ education classes, under the vulnerable user law.
A gap in the law: Rader’s death and the civil penalty rather than criminal charge that followed highlights the gap in Wisconsin law that the vulnerable user legislation was crafted to fill. (Click here for a copy of the bill).
“Somebody died and the driver still got away with a traffic citation,” said Dave Schlabowske, deputy director of the Wisconsin Bike Fed. “Without our vulnerable user bill, inattentive drivers are killing legal road users, people obeying the law, and the result is a traffic citation and a fine.
“Whether it’s $180 or $1,300 it doesn’t match up with the consequences of their actions.”
In the crash on Mineral Point Rd., the consequences ripple through the Madison community. Rader was a husband and the father of a 17-year-old daughter; a well-respected computer systems manager in the University of Wisconsin – Madison Physics Department; and someone who pursued a wide range of activities – cycling, tennis, bike polo, snowboarding, music, yoga, radio controlled aircraft and fresh water aquaria.
This piece, written by one of his fellow bike polo players, captures the difficulty in comprehending his death:
“I still wonder why Steve died because a tow truck driver didn’t exercise basic care with his four-ton vehicle. It is upsetting to know that this happens and will continue to happen as a symptom of our desire to get places hastily without care our concern for those around us and in the worst cases, because of misplaced socio-systemic contempt for cyclists.”
Rader’s widow said she could not comment on the case while the legal action is pending.
Similar cases: As noted, the fine in Steve Rader’s death is significantly higher than those imposed on drivers who killed cyclists in recent years. Those range from the $114 ticket for the driver who killed Brett Netke in June 2010, to the $640 ticket issued to the driver who killed David Landgraf on Aug. 5, 2011. (Click here for a list of recent cases).
In a more recent fatality, William Weber, 55, of Sheboygan, paid a $187.90 fine for inattentive driving on Highway A in Sheboygan County on July 31. Weber crashed into and killed Allen Redensek, a 55-year-old bicyclist pedaling in the same direction.
Sheboygan County Dist. Atty. Joe DeCecco said the circumstances surrounding the crash, including a hill that limited Weber’s ability to see Redensek and the flashing lights from a nearby patrol car, dissuaded him from pursuing a criminal charge against Weber.
Current law limited his options to a traffic citation, or a felony charge.
DeCecco would have preferred the option – a criminal misdemeanor – that would be available with a vulnerable user law.
“For me, it would be a good tool,” he said. “When you have a death, a traffic citation seems so inappropriate.”