Washington's Vulnerable User Law
This article was written by John Duggan and originally appeared in Bicycle Paper's 2015 NW Tour Guide.
Until recently, Washington’s motor vehicle code (RCW 46.61) was lacking an important section. Many vehicle versus bicycle incidents resulting in the death or serious injury of a cyclist brought a second round of tragedy and public outrage when the cycling community learned that the offending driver only received a traffic citation such as “failure to yield the right-of-way” or “inattention” and walked away with a $128 ticket. Most of the serious occurrences resulting in a fatality did not rise to the level of a felony because the driver did not intend the consequences or was not reckless and the prosecutor could only charge the offending motorist with a minor traffic violation. Thanks to hard-working bicycle advocacy groups and the Washington State Legislature, Washington’s Vulnerable User Law (VUL) provides the police and prosecutors with a new “middle ground” infraction. While the statute was enacted in 2011, it did not become effective until July 1, 2012.
This new statute is codified at RCW 46.61.526 and essentially states that a motorist violates the VUL if the person operating a motor vehicle does so in a negligent manner and causes death or substantial bodily harm to a vulnerable user. Negligence is defined as the failure to exercise ordinary care and is the doing of some act that a reasonably careful person would not do under the same or similar circumstances, or the failure to do something that a reasonably careful person would do under the same or similar circumstances. A vulnerable user is described as a pedestrian, a person riding an animal, or operating a farm tractor, bicycle, electric-assisted bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, moped, motor-driven cycle, motorcycle, or motorized foot scooter. Substantial bodily harm means injury that involves at least a temporary but significant disfigurement, or which causes a temporary but considerable loss or impairment of the function of any body part or organ, or which causes a fracture.
What the new law does is increase the penalties. Instead of a simple $128 or similar amount traffic infraction fine, if the court considers that the driver violates the VUL, then the judge can impose a fine between $1,000 and $5,000 and suspend driving privileges for 90 days. However, at the request of the offending driver, the court may instead consider a $250 fine and require the motorist to attend traffic school and perform up to 100 hours of community service related to driver improvement and public education on traffic safety.
The hope is that the increased penalties will have a deterrent effect and the need for the statute will eventually decrease. If drivers know that they may face increased fines and hours of community service, maybe they will become more vigilant regarding cyclists and other vulnerable roadway users.
Until recently, people charged with enforcing the VUL were not aware of the new law and as a result, it was not being used. Between 2011 and 2013, almost every police officer and prosecutor with whom I spoke was unaware of it. This was especially true in jurisdictions surrounding Seattle. Through the efforts of the Cascade Bicycle Club, Washington Bikes, local bike advocates and the Seattle City Attorney’s office, the VUL is starting to gain traction and is now being successfully charged in a variety of bicycle versus car incidents. Because the extent of the vulnerable user’s injuries may not be readily apparent at the scene of an incident, the Seattle Police Department (SPD) is encouraging its officers to not issue a traffic citation until after the matter has been investigated by the Traffic Collision Investigation Squad and then referred to the Seattle City Attorney’s office for charging. Now that the SPD and Seattle City Attorney’s office are finally making progress, the hope is that other jurisdictions across the state will follow suit and invoke the statute in the proper circumstances.
As cyclists, what we need to do is get the word out and help educate other riders, drivers, police and prosecutors. If you find yourself in an unfortunate situation involving a motor vehicle, demand that the responding officer either charge the driver with a VUL violation or that the officer check with his superiors regarding whether Vulnerable User Law charges are warranted. Hopefully we will reach a point where we no longer need this law, but until then, help spread the word.