The thunderstorms opened up over lake Odessa just before dawn. Most of us had barely gotten started in getting our gear packed and with all the lightning there was nothing to do but eat a slow breakfast and wait for the rain to slow enough to tear down tents and load the trucks. But spirits were high and you could tell a little water wasn’t about to slow down this crew.
We rolled out at 8 am, hopeful that the forecast was right that a break in the storm would come sometime between 10 and noon.
For the next two hours and 26.5 miles the rain poured over us nonstop. But you can only get just so wet. After that you’re just part of it. I found myself grinning, smelling the wet green fields and enjoying the feel of the water running down my face and arms. A lot more pleasant than sweat.
Something about rain seems to wash more debris on the road. I counted ten flat tires in two hours. I learned later from PALM staffers that the rain washes up tiny slivers of glass to the pavement surface, where they can slice through your tire and into the tube. Nothing you can do to avoid it; just a matter of bad luck. I felt lucky to have been one of the lucky ones.
But my beautiful day nearly came to an abrupt end a few hours later beneath the clearing blue sky. I was rolling along on smooth blacktop among a wide open expanse of farm fields. I was on Columbia road riding east toward Dansville. That’s when I was nearly t-boned by a driver who blew a stop sign to turn left directly in front of me. I had watched him speeding toward the intersection and had started to ease up just in case. I heard two cyclists behind me shout and swear at him and he swore back, but I was too startled myself to do anything but keep riding.
Ten feet. If I’d been that much faster he would’ve hit me. It shakes you up at those moments to realize just how vulnerable we cyclists are. And believe me, we have all had those moments, or worse.
That’s what Protect Vulnerable Users legislation is all about.
Modeled after accepted European standards and containing penalties similar to those used in numerous states and communities across the country, this legislation creates enhanced penalties for drivers who injure or kill a vulnerable roadway user, defined as a bicyclist, pedestrian or wheelchair user. The enhanced penalties include community service, driver-improvement education, fines, and jail time, as well as a mandatory one-year license suspension. These would only apply if a driver committed a moving violation resulting in the injury or death of a non-motorized user who was following Michigan traffic laws.
In Michigan, similar enhanced penalties already exist for reckless drivers who injure or kill construction workers, children in designated school zones, or operators of slow-moving farm vehicles.
Currently, crashes involving bicyclists legally using public roads often result in minor consequences for careless drivers that injure non-motorized users. Unless a victim can prove that the driver was grossly negligent, he or she usually has limited legal recourse. In fact, blame often gets shifted to victims with statements like “this wouldn’t have happened if they weren’t in the road.”
Killing a cyclist rarely even merits court appearances. In practice, Michigan law places little burden on drivers to be alert for other roadway users. Non-motorists have every right to expect that drivers will safely maneuver around them. Drivers who injure or kill bicyclists and pedestrians deserve to have their driving skills called into question and face stiffer penalties under state law.
A vulnerable roadway user provision would provide law enforcement and prosecutors with an enhanced set of penalties that fill the gap between basic traffic infractions and more serious crimes.
Michigan currently leads the nation with over 80 locally adopted Complete Streets ordinances and resolutions. As communities implement Complete Streets, more and more individuals will choose active transportation, like walking and biking. Improved infrastructure alone, however, does not guarantee safety, as demonstrated by a marked increase in bicycle and pedestrian fatalities. To remain viable, “Share the Road” principles must have a legal backbone, the foundation of which is stiffer penalties for drivers who fail to safely coexist with other legal roadway users.
Similar versions of these bills (HB 4958 and 4959 of 2009) were passed in 2010 with broad bi-partisan support. Unfortunately, they were never taken up by the Senate.
Recognizing that penalizing drivers after the fact does not alone protect users, we also support parallel efforts to enhance Michigan’s driver’s education curriculum, helping to prevent these tragedies from happening in the first place.