LANSING—Stiff penalties could be coming for motorists who carelessly injure or kill bicyclists on Michigan roads. Two “vulnerable roadway user” bills introduced to the state House over the last month would create special punishments for drivers who commit moving violations resulting in the serious injury or death of pedestrians, wheelchair users or people riding non-motorized vehicles like bicycles.
The bills, which have attracted bipartisan support, are currently working their way through the House Criminal Justice Committee. HB 4799 outlines penalties for a range of offenses, while HB 4792 deals with sentencing guidelines. They both go above and beyond existing laws dealing with manslaughter and other types of intentional and non-intentional harm.
Under the proposed legislation, a moving violation resulting in serious bodily impairment of a vulnerable roadway user would be a considered a misdemeanor that could be punishable by up to 93 days in prison, a fine up to $1,000 or 180 hours of community service.
“A lot of time the court system doesn’t take these cases very seriously. It almost seems like a slap on the wrist oftentimes, and these are life-altering events for the bicyclists and pedestrians involved in these crashes.” ~John Lindenmayer, Advocacy & Policy Director for the League of Michigan Bicyclists
If the moving violation killed someone, the misdemeanor penalties could be increased to one year in prison, a $2,000 fine or 360 hours of community service. Reckless driving leading to a death would be handled as a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and/or a fine of up to $10,000.
Cyclists and other vulnerable roadway users would need to comply with state traffic laws for the charges to be considered. Similar laws have passed in Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington.
John Lindenmayer, Advocacy & Policy Director for the League of Michigan Bicyclists, tells Mode Shift that Michigan already has enhanced penalties for reckless driving that harms construction workers, slow-moving farm vehicle operators and children in designated school zones. He believes similar measures should be taken to protect bicyclists and pedestrians.
“We hear from a lot from bicyclists who are involved in these serious crashes, and ultimately not much tends to happen,” Lindenmayer says. “A lot of time the court system doesn’t take these cases very seriously. It almost seems like a slap on the wrist oftentimes, and these are life-altering events for the bicyclists and pedestrians involved in these crashes.”
Raising Road Safety Awareness
In addition to their punitive implications, he believes the bills could help raise awareness about road safety.
“We really are optimistic that we’ll be able to work with the Secretary of State to further improve driver’s education to make sure from day one when you get behind the wheel that you understand bicyclists have the same rights and responsibilities getting on the roadways that you do as a driver.”
Although vulnerable roadway user legislation has been introduced in the two previous Michigan legislation sessions, Lindenmayer is hopeful that the involvement of House Criminal Justice Committee Chair Kurt Heise (R-Plymouth) will help them gain better traction this time.
Rep. Heise, a co-sponsor of both bills, tells Mode Shift many of his constituents are avid cyclists and have raised concerns about bicycle awareness and road safety; he thinks the proposed legislation will help address these issues.
“We’re setting up a three-tiered system of criminal penalties, which are much tougher than what we currently have, and I think that sends a very strong message to the motoring public: be aware of bicyclists, share the road with bicyclists,” he says. “I also think it puts a duty on the bicycling community as well to be aware and share the road and observe all the traffic signals.”
Rep. Heise says his committee will hold hearings on the two-bill package this September and hopes they’ll make it to the floor of the full House later this fall. Although he can’t be sure how his colleagues will vote, he is encouraged by the broad cross-section of legislators co-sponsoring the measures.
“It’s a great indicator of support,” he says. “I like not only the number of co-sponsors, but that it’s bipartisan and it’s also regional. We’ve got Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) from the Upper Peninsula, who is the sponsor of one bill, and then we’ve got David Nathan (D) from Southfield, who is sponsoring the other. It’s a nice diverse set of folks that are behind this.”