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Ignorance of the Law Is No Excuse — Unless You’re the Police

IMG_0213Did you know that here in Washington we have a Vulnerable User Law? Don’t feel bad if you don’t know about it because it seems some in law enforcement don’t know about it either. The law’s been in effect since July 1, 2012 and requires an automatic $5,000 fine for drivers who seriously injure or kill a more vulnerable road user (bicyclists, pedestrians, people riding an animal, or scooter to name a few) during a traffic infraction. The driver also risks losing driving privileges for 90 days. Prior to the existence of the new law, all that was required was that the driver mail in a pittance of a traffic fine.

But lest you get too complacent about your new “rights,” you should know about the Seattle cyclist who was t-boned by a driver of an SUV blowing through a stop sign last September. Even though the cyclist was seriously injured, requiring months of medical care and rehabilitation, the policewoman at the scene failed to cite the driver for anything. The cyclist, in case you were wondering, did nothing wrong. I don’t know how you get to run a stop sign, let alone injure someone else in the process, and not be cited. It doesn’t exactly instill confidence in the police. When finally confronted by the cyclist’s attorney, the policewoman said she was unfamiliar with the new law. How did this policewoman not know? Don’t they have briefings? Isn’t there an app for that? Can you imagine telling a cop who has just pulled you over for some infraction you weren’t familiar with the law? Eventually, and the important word in this sentence is eventually, the cop cited the driver for failure to yield but it took persistence from the cyclist to get the city attorney to prosecute the under the Vulnerable User Law.

imageDon’t get me wrong. I am not anti-law enforcement; quite the contrary. But there is something deeply disturbing about this on many levels. All too often when a cyclist is hit by a motor vehicle, depending on the cyclist’s injuries a cop may not even be dispatched to the scene. Even when serious injuries are involved, as in the above-mentioned case, the driver is simply given the proverbial slap on the wrist if that. The new law was enacted to deal with the problem but it can only do that if it’s enforced.

Not too long ago, I was almost taken out in an intersection when a motorist failed to stop at a stop sign. I was wearing my obnoxiously orange, high-viz vest so whatever she was doing she wasn’t looking at the road. She came so close to hitting me that I could reach out and touch her SUV. It was scary and unnerving. I rode away thinking that had she hit me at least she’d be in serious legal trouble. But then again… maybe not.