Teaching Police How to Use Laws That Protect Pedestrians and Cyclists

Seattle resident Heather Barnett was making her usual bike commute to the University of Washington campus last September when she was t-boned by an SUV driver who blew a stop sign. Needless to say, it was a life-altering incident for the young woman.

Heather Barnett suffered a torn MCL, a broken tibia, two broken wrists and a broken nose in a collision with an SUV last September. The driver who was responsible faced no charges, until Healther and her boyfriend persisted. Image: Cascade Bicycle Club

She tore her MCL, chipped her femur and broke her tibia, both wrists, and her nose. Her boyfriend had to take off two months of work to care for her. The couple had to move in with friends because their apartment was not wheelchair-accessible.

While the consequences for Heather were severe, that wasn’t the case for the driver. Anne-Marije Rock at Cascade Bicycle Club writes that Washington State’s “vulnerable user” law is supposed to help protect victims of traffic violence, but law enforcement officials were completely oblivious to or uninterested in the fact that they could apply it to Heather’s case:

“We were most interested in a citation to show proof of liability,” explained Heather. “Collisions like this just aren’t taken very seriously – the cyclist gets taken away in the ambulance, and the driver moves on with their lives. It’s just not right.”

Under the Vulnerable User Law, which Cascade worked to pass through the Washington Legislature in 2011, a driver committing a traffic infraction—such as speeding, texting while driving or running a stop sign—that results in the serious injury or death of a vulnerable roadway user will face an automatic fine of up to $5,000 and a 90-day suspension of driving privileges.

It took weeks before they were able to speak to the police officer on the case.

“The officer was less than receptive,” voiced [her attorney John] Duggan with agitation. “Non-cooperative even.”

Once they were able to get a hold of the officer, they asked her about the lack of citation. The officer explained she was not familiar with the Vulnerable User Law but after revisiting the accident report, she was eventually willing to write a failure to yield citation.

“The [Vulnerable User] law is there but I’m under the impression that no one knows about it. It shouldn’t be up to the victim to enlighten law enforcement about this law.”

Eventually, Heather and her boyfriend, Josh, prevailed on to the city attorney’s office to prosecute the driver to the fullest extent of the law. Thanks to their intervention, the driver was eventually charged with failure to yield, driving without insurance, and negligent driving in the second degree — the charge for injuring a vulnerable user. The fines added up to $11,184.00, Cascade reports.

Heather says she doesn’t feel ill will toward the driver, but it didn’t seem right not to penalize her at all. “I’m just frustrated that there would have been no outcome, no consequence for the driver.”

Cascade is now working with Heather’s attorney to help build awareness of this law.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Bike Pedantic says the “worst-interview-while-sober-ever” by a spokesman for the AAA Mid-Atlantic region has failed to inspire any real corrective action by AAA. The Political Environment relays the sad story of a grand, historically significant Civil War-era bur oak tree that had the misfortune to stand in the way of a WisDOT highway plan. And Stop and Move examines a viral “cyclists endanger motorists” newspaper column written by a Texas mayor.