This year, as in previous years, several introduced bills in the General Assembly address penalties when a driver maims or kills a vulnerable road user through careless or improper driving. Nine states have vulnerable road user laws, and many other states, like Virginia, are considering similar legislation.
What is a vulnerable road user, and why do they need special protection?
Some people on the road are more vulnerable to death or injury from a traffic crash than most other users. Definitions of “vulnerable road user” typically include people walking, using mobility aids including wheelchairs, bicyclists, equestrians, and highway workers. Careless driving around vulnerable road users can have devastating consequences. In states without vulnerable road user laws, incidents that cause severe injury or death may be treated as merely traffic violations or moving infractions. For example, a woman in Mississippi who hit a bicyclist and then drove over the bicyclist again was fined just $50 for negligent driving. One month later in the same community, a doctoral student on a bicycle was killed by a speeding driver who was never charged or ticketed.
Victims and families are frustrated when a driver kills a person with reckless behavior and then pays only a small fine. But police and judges are unwilling to lock someone up on criminal charges just for running a red light, even if it resulted in a death. Advocates saw a gap between a small fine and a prison sentence.
Vulnerable road user laws penalize a careless driver who kills or maims a vulnerable road user with a large fine (up to several thousand dollars). The penalty is fairer than a small fine for a minor traffic infraction and encourages more careful driving around vulnerable road users.
It is important to note that vulnerable road user laws address the situation where careless driving resulted in injury or death. Drivers who were driving properly and carefully but are involved in a crash with a vulnerable road user won’t be affected by this law.
Criminal actions that go beyond careless driving would not be affected by vulnerable road user laws, such as the New York truck driver who killed and injured twenty people on a bike path or the Los Angeles doctor who killed two bicyclists in a fit of road rage. Vulnerable road user laws are intended to stiffen penalties for careless and improper driving that results in an injury or death.