Drivers who hit a biker or pedestrian could face stiffer penalties under a bill approved by the state Senate Thursday.
In a 43-5 vote, the Senate passed Senate Bill 5326, which would create an enhanced traffic infraction for negligent drivers who hurt or kill a “vulnerable user” of a public road, a move supporters said was a first step toward fixing a gap in Washington driving laws.
Under existing law, the penalties are the same for someone who drives negligently but does not hurt anyone and for a negligent driver who injures or kills a biker or pedestrian.
“If you are negligent and you kill someone, what you get is a ticket and a $250 fine,” said Sen. Adam Kline, a Seattle Democrat and the bill’s primary sponsor. “Families see that small fine and wonder, why is someone getting away with a killing and getting a $250 fine?”
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According to data from the Cascade Bicycle Club, which helped draft the bill, an average of 229 Washington bikers and pedestrians were killed or seriously injured per year between 2004 and 2007 in accidents where the driver failed to yield, was driving too fast, ran a red light or wasn’t paying attention.
John Schochet, a lawyer from the Seattle City Attorney’s Office who worked on the bill, said if you drive recklessly, meaning you are intentionally driving in a way that is likely to harm a person or property, but don’t hurt anyone, you can be charged with a misdemeanor. If you drive recklessly and do hurt or kill someone, you can be charged with a felony.
If you drive negligently, however, meaning you don’t drive in a way that a reasonably careful person would, you have committed a traffic infraction, not a crime, and you get the same penalties whether you kill someone or not.
For a case where someone is injured or killed, police officers and courts have to decide whether the driver who caused the accident was reckless or negligent, and, Schochet said, there is no middle ground between the two.
“This fills a gap,” said Schochet, referring to the Senate bill. “Right now there’s really nothing between a traffic ticket and a felony charge.”
If the bill is enacted, people who drive negligently and seriously hurt or kill a “vulnerable road user” would either have to pay a $1,000 to $5,000 fine and have their licenses revoked for 90 days or appear at a hearing, pay a $250 fine, take a traffic safety course and complete 100 hours of community service. Vulnerable users include moped riders, equestrians and tractor drivers as well as bikers and pedestrians.
At a hearing on the bill in January, most people testified in favor of the proposal, though Judge Brett Buckley from the District and Municipal Court Judges Association said he was concerned about the amount of money the measure could cost local courts, which would be responsible for providing hearings and checking to see that drivers complete their community service and traffic safety courses.
Buckley said the Legislature too often passes bills that add unfunded mandates to the court system, and he would like lawmakers to allow the courts to charge negligent drivers a fee so that they could recover some of the costs. According to the bill’s fiscal note, it would cost local courts about $44,000 every two years.
In order to become law the bill still needs to pass the House and get a signature from the governor. A companion bill, House Bill 1339, made it out of the House Rules Committee Thursday.