Model Vulnerable User Law
Vulnerable Road User (VRU) Laws provide important legal protection to bicyclists and other persons who are not protected by steel cages. VRU laws operate on the principal of general deterrence - by providing an increased penalty for certain road behaviors that lead to the serious injury or death of certain road users people will be deterred from doing those behaviors around those users. The model law includes very strong punishments for people who seriously injure or kill bicyclists and other vulnerable road users. If you have questions about the model law, similar laws, or how to advocate for this type of law please contact Ken at [email protected].
INFLICTION OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH TO VULNERABLE ROAD USERS
Section 1: As used herein, the term “vulnerable road user” includes:
(a) a pedestrian, including those persons actually engaged in work upon a highway, or in work upon utility facilities along a highway, or engaged in the provision of emergency services within the right-of-way; or
(b) a person riding or leading an animal; or
(c) a person lawfully operating or riding any of the following on a public right-of-way, crosswalk, or shoulder of the highway:
- A bicycle, tricycle, or other pedal-powered vehicles;
- A farm tractor or similar vehicle designed primarily for farm use;
- A skateboard;
- Roller skates;
- In-line skates;
- A scooter;
- A moped;
- A motorcycle;
- An animal-drawn wheeled vehicle, or farm equipment, or sled;
- An electric personal assistive mobility device; or
- A wheelchair.
A person who operates a motor vehicle in a careless or distracted manner or [commits an existing violation under state law] and causes serious physical injury or death to a vulnerable road user shall be guilty of infliction of serious physical injury or death to a vulnerable road user.
A person issued a citation under this section shall be required to attend a hearing before a court of appropriate jurisdiction.
A person found to have committed an offense under this statute shall be required to either:
(a) have his or her driving privileged suspended for a period of no less than 6 months; and one or more of the following:
(1) pay a monetary penalty of not more than two thousand dollars; and/or
(2) serve a period of incarceration which may not exceed thirty days; and/or
(3) participate in a motor vehicle crash prevention course; and/or
(4) perform community service for a number of hours to be determined by the court, which may not exceed two hundred hours.
(b) [Receive a penalty equivalent to or greater than the state’s vehicular or negligent homicide statute].
What are they?
Automobiles provide a shell of protection for their users — creating a safety disparity between cars and other road users. This is not to say non-automobile forms of transportation aren’t safe, but simply that there is a difference between what occurs when a car is hit at 25 miles-per-hour and what occurs when a pedestrian is hit at 25 mph. While the percentage of motorist deaths has fallen, the percentage of road fatalities that are bicyclists and pedestrians has grown in recent years (from 12 percent to 16 percent).
Vulnerable Road User laws increase protection for bicyclists and other road users who are not in cars. They are relatively new and states have chosen to protect vulnerable road users in a variety of ways. This usually involves 1) harsher penalties for the violation of existing laws when that violation impacts a defined set of road users or 2) the creation of new laws that prohibit certain actions directed at a defined set of road users.
Why should you care?
Safety: The vast majority of VRU laws provide for increased fines or civil liability in cases where a vulnerable road user is injured or killed because of negligence or as the result of a traffic violation. These laws increase the cost of unsafe practices that impact bicyclists and provide an incentive for safer driving practices, especially around cyclists and pedestrians. In this way the laws are much like increased fines in work zones, which promote construction worker safety. VRU laws recognize that the type of simple negligence or traffic violations that may result in minor collisions between cars can have disproportionately severe results when a vulnerable road user is involved and provide ways to address those divergent results.
In some states VRU laws include the option or mandate that a person convicted of injuring or killing a vulnerable road user attend a hearing. Without these laws, a driver who injures or kills a bicyclist may simply pay a fine through the mail — despite the severity of the impact of his or her actions. These hearings can provide a chance for both sides to meet and tell their stories, similar to victim impact panels that are a feature of DUI offenses. The League believes the experience of a hearing is a valuable tool for addressing the separateness between motorists and bicyclists — and endorses requiring a hearing as part of our Model Legislation.
VRU laws may be an important and effective part of messaging about road safety. The VRU concept is inclusive and multi-modal. It provides a messaging and legal framework for a wide range of advocates interested in road safety that highlights and increases awareness of the inherent safety disparity between road users encased in a protective shell and those who are not. As a newer concept, it has the potential to engage law enforcement, judges, and juries in a way that they have not been before and shift perceptions. While these individuals or groups may not always understand what it is like to be a cyclist, at one time or another everyone has been a vulnerable road user.
A VRU law may increase access to justice. Vulnerable road users, unlike automobile users, may lack the evidence and expensive property damage that is created in a car crash. Statutory civil penalties may provide an incentive for lawyers to work with vulnerable road users to recover damages and recognize the seriousness of vulnerable road user crashes. Criminal penalties provide an additional enforcement tool for police and a framework for better traffic enforcement.
Who has them?
12 states – Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington – have VRU laws that define a set of road users as vulnerable and provide specific processes and penalties for actions directed at those users. Additionally, 17 states and the District of Columbia in some way address vulnerable road users by prohibiting certain actions — such as harassment or the throwing of objects — or by providing the ability for persons to be charged with greater penalties when their actions result in the injury or death of a vulnerable road user.
Where did they come from?
The first state to pass a vulnerable road user law, which defined a set of road users as vulnerable and provided specific penalties for actions directed at those users, was Oregon, in 2007. Many of the other laws that protect vulnerable road users from certain actions were passed in response to tragedies caused by motorist-bicyclist collisions. As of the last revision to the Uniform Vehicle Code (UVC) in 2000, there is no UVC section equivalent to vulnerable road user laws. The closest relevant section is UVC 11-1111, which deals with glass and other substances likely to injure on a roadway. Some variation of UVC 11-1111 has been adopted in a majority of states.
SPOTLIGHT STATE: OREGON
Oregon enacted the first Vulnerable Road User law in the U.S. in 2007. The law provides a definition of vulnerable users and sets out distinct penalties for the serious physical injury or death of vulnerable road users under the careless driving law. Careless driving is a Class A or B traffic violation — depending on whether it involves a crash — and requires a hearing when it involves the serious physical injury or death of a vulnerable road user. The penalties are significant when that careless driving results in a serious physical injury or death of a vulnerable road user: a fine that’s six times the standard maximum fine for a Class A traffic violation and a one-year suspension of driving privileges.
In addition, Oregon addresses vehicular assault against bicyclists and pedestrians as a separate Class A misdemeanor. This vehicular assault law can complement or provide an alternative to a citation for a violation of Oregon’s safe passing law, giving law enforcement options to account for different driver behavior or enforcement concerns related to the safe passing law.
Learn more about how the vulnerable road user law was developed and enacted here. Since the initial law, advocates, like the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, have worked for improvements, including an amendment in 2011.
The model vulnerable road user law is primarily based upon Oregon’s law. It is meant to increase awareness about the need to for drivers to be attentive when sharing the road with non-drivers and provide a level of punishment that fills a gap between normal traffic citations and criminal vehicular homicide, manslaughter, or driving while intoxicated laws.
Section 1 defines who is included as a “vulnerable road user.” The model law attempts to be as inclusive as possible with the defining characteristic of people included in the definition being the lack of automotive-style occupant protection, such as crash zones, windshields, and seatbelts.
Section 2 defines when the law is applicable and who can be charged with a violation of the law. This is a section of the law that likely needs tailoring to each individual state. The core concept of this section is that a driver who does some unsafe behavior and causes the serious injury or death of a vulnerable road user can be punished according to this law. We believe this type of punishment is justified because:
- Unsafe behavior is worthy of punishment,
- Serious injury or death are appropriate aggravating circumstances for enhanced punishments,
- While no serious injury or death is acceptable, it makes sense to provide a greater punishment when the injured or killed party is more vulnerable in order to promote a societal norm that people capable of causing more harm bear a greater responsibility due to that capability.
Section 3 requires a person charged according to this law to attend a hearing. This section is meant to provide an opportunity for victims of road violence and their families to be involved in the legal process. Every state has a victim’s rights law, but non-criminal traffic offenses usually do not afford victims of road violence those rights. This section does not provide victims of road violence the same rights as victims of crimes, but ensures that there is more to the justice process than the payment of a fine.
Section 4 provides the punishments that are to be given to a person convicted of a violation of this law. This is a section of the law that likely needs tailoring to each individual state. Section 4(a) provides one mandatory punishment and requires one additional punishment. A driver’s license suspension is the mandatory punishment because driving is a privilege, not a right, and it is appropriate to lose that privilege due to unsafe behavior. The other potential punishments: a monetary fine, incarceration, education, and community service provide options to tailor a punishment to the particular offender.
Each state has different existing laws and different political climates. Effectively using our model law requires knowing both.
The model law only contains text for traffic rules. In creating legislation, you should feel free to draw upon the explanation of the law, talking points for similar laws, and other relevant sources to create a legislative declaration or preamble that explains the importance of the law to your state, legislators, and governor.
The model law assumes that all relevant words used in the model law have been defined in your state’s laws. If your state has not defined relevant words, e.g. “bicycle” or “lane,” then your legislation should address the definition of those words. The words used in the model law may have particular meanings in your state, for instance “roadway” can have a particular meaning in some states that is inclusive or exclusive of a shoulder. In creating legislation, you should feel free to use the words already defined in your state that best adapt the model law to your state’s existing definition. However, there may be times where this review of definitions provides an important opportunity to clarify these ancillary terms.
The model law is based upon current laws. You should feel free to propose new language that extends protection to bicyclists and other vulnerable road users. You should work with law enforcement officials and prosecutors to understand the best way to provide legal protections to vulnerable road users. In particular, it is very important to understand currently available penalties and current traffic offenses in order to make the VRU law a valuable option for law enforcement and prosecutors. Please draw upon the resources provided by the League to find what every state does to protect bicyclists and create the best possible where to ride law for your state.
The model law is likely to have a fiscal impact on your state because it provides incarceration as a potential punishment. There are many political realities that you may discover when proposing a law based upon the model law. You should feel free to adjust the model law to the political realities of your state and the coalition of advocates you have created for the law.
- A Vulnerable Road User Law provides general deterrence for bad behaviors around vulnerable users.
- A Vulnerable Road User Law can fill legal gaps between less and more severe offenses, providing additional charging options to local prosecutors.
- A Vulnerable Road User Law recognizes and provides a tool for crashes that result in serious injury or death, which have severe societal costs.
- All traffic violations are serious and a VRU law is one tool to use, but penalties should be strengthened for many violations – a VRU law may not be the best tool for all states given their current laws and statutory punishments.
- A Vulnerable Road User law promotes public awareness of the threat posed by motor vehicles and the vulnerability of people outside of motor vehicles.
- The League of American Bicyclists’ review of state vulnerable road user laws, including citations to state laws that provide enhanced penalties without defining a group of “vulnerable road users”: Bike Law University
- An explanation of the origin of Oregon’s vulnerable road user law by Ray Thomas, a member of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance’s legislative committee and the League’s Legal Affairs Committee, and chief proponent of the concept.
- An examination of the vulnerable road user law concept by New Zealand researchers investigating whether it is appropriate for New Zealand.
- A report on the first use of Washington State’s vulnerable road user law.
How many states have VRU laws?
12 states have laws that define a vulnerable user or vulnerable road user and provide particular penalties for actions towards those vulnerable road users or when violations of traffic law lead to the serious injury or death of a vulnerable road user – Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington.
What is the average punishment under a VRU law?
Punishments range dramatically between states. Most laws are written so that a fine of up a specified amount can be given under a VRU law. The lowest maximum fine is $550 while the highest maximum fine is $12,500. Most states have set their maximum fine above $1000. Washington state requires a minimum fine of $1000.
Why should the serious injury or death of some people be punished more than the serious injury or death of others?
It is a tragedy that people are seriously injured or killed regardless of how they were moving around. Every effort should be made to make our roadways safer for everyone. However, punishing people who do unsafe behavior that affects vulnerable road users furthers a societal good where the powerful are conscious and respectful of their own power and the threat they pose to people not similar situated. People driving cars have a tremendous potential to hurt or kill others, particularly people outside of their cars, and this law provides a mechanism for drivers to internalize the threat they pose to others.
How often are drivers prosecuted when they seriously injure or kill a bicyclist?
The short answer is nobody knows because governments, at the federal, state, and local level tend not to collect data on prosecutions related to road violence. In 2014, the League published a report that looked at media reports related to 628 bicyclist fatalities that occurred in 2012 and found reports that drivers were punished in only 12% of reported fatalities. You can find out more in the Every Bicyclist Counts report. Your local or state court system may have prosecution and citation data.
A 2013 report by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that in 238 pedestrian fatalities 60% of motorists found to be at fault or suspected of a crime faced no criminal charges.