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Tougher Penalties Loom for Injuring Bicyclists, Other 'Vulnerable Road Users'

A new bill in the state senate would elevate punishments for motorists who cause injury to vulnerable road users.

Will a new bill introduced in the state senate provide more protection for bicyclists and other vulnerable road users? Community law enforcement officials have mixed feelings.

The bill, introduced Feb. 6, would elevate penalties against motorists who commit traffic violations that injure or kill vulnerable road users.

A in Oak Creek last July is one of several incidents lobbyists with the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin are pointing to as evidence that tougher laws are necessary. The driver in that case, Joshua Chomicki, crossed the center line and hit 56-year-old Sam Ferrito, who was biking in the same direction on the opposite side of Nicholson Road.

Chomicki was cited for two traffic violations — driving over the center line and speeding, for a total fine of $206.80  — but he was not criminally prosecuted, leaving many cycling advocates frustrated. Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Grant Huebner told the Journal Sentinel he did not believe he could meet the standard of criminal negligence with the facts at hand.

"Those are the situations we’re trying to address," said Dave Schlabowski, communications director for the federation. "It’s not trying to call it homicide; it’s trying to raise the level of responsibility for driving."

What's in the bill

Under the new bill, if traffic violations cause harm to a vulnerable road user, in many cases the fines are doubled, and in some cases the motorist can be charged for a felony with punishment of up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

In defining "vulnerable highway users," the bill includes groups such as cyclists, pedestrians, in-line skaters, and those driving motorcycles, emergency vehicles, and farm equipment.

Similar laws have passed in New York and Delaware, after the first passed in Oregon in 2009.

Law enforcement’s opinion

In the community where Ferrito was killed, Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards said the bill requires additional support.

"Passing a law isn’t enough to prevent it, but it's a step in the right direction," Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards said. "There needs to be along with it an educational portion to get the information out. I think if we can enforce what's out there and not let things slide we can help educate everybody."

Many local police administrators said they worry about how creeping distractions — talking, texting and eating while driving — are compounded by a growing number of cyclists on the road.

"It really hasn’t been a factor in our city, however there is a possibility that it could occur," Greenfield Police Assistant Chief Paul Schlecht said, referring to accidents with vulnerable road users. "There’s getting to be more and more bicyclists out there every year. I think there’s just so much more for a driver to divert their attention to that they maybe just don’t see the bicyclist."

Shorewood Police Chief David Banaszynski shared that concern, and said he supports the proposed bill.

"I believe that drivers need to be more aware that in this day and age, the road is being shared with a lot of people, and they need to keep their eyes open for it," Banaszynski said.

However, some were skeptical that increasing punishments would effectively prevent accidents from occurring.

"I don’t think it would deter as much as people think; I think it would serve more as a punishment," Greendale Lieut. Jeff Zainer said.

Zainer said he supports the bill, but doesn't see it having a significant impact in Greendale, where he said accidents are down to historic lows. Zainer said about 20 percent of accidents in Greendale occur at , where he said police have been able to improve safety by enforcing speed and stop sign violations.

Menomonee Falls Capt. Mark Waters also said he didn't think his community would be much affected, as it already has success with enforcing existing laws.

"When we do enforcement, we’re trying to change driver behavior and get voluntary compliance with drivers, and often we see that penalties don’t change driver behavior," Waters said. "Our drivers are aware of their surroundings and we have a good environment here in the Falls."

Schlabowski said if the bill passes, the federation will continue its emphasis on education for both cyclists and motorists.

"Last year we taught 18,000 people how to ride legally and safely," Schlabowski said. "Our message to share and be aware."

Jeff butler March 07, 2012 at 12:09 AM
I also agree with the compliments above and believe that bikes/ cycles/ and pedestrians have equal rights to the roadways. But can someone explain why people on bikes do not obey stop signs ,they seem to just roll through them and or ignore them completely. Is it because the white ring around the sign , or just to difficult to start peddling again from a stop.
Goodgulf March 07, 2012 at 12:20 AM
It's because they either don't know that they are required to, or because they rationalize doing it. However, this doesn't seem to be just cyclists. Most motorists roll stop signs and speed, pedestrians tend to j-walk, etc. I think we all do this sort of thing because: A. We don't think we'll get caught. B. We rationalize it away (It's only 5 MPH over the speed limit, everyone's doing it, etc.)
Craig March 07, 2012 at 12:27 AM
Goodgrief, you can't roll a stop in front of a cop in a car. Bikes do it everyday.
Goodgulf March 07, 2012 at 01:19 AM
Cars roll stops in front of cops all the time. I have yet to see one get pulled over. But, of course, cops tend to be more focused on preventing cars from doing dangerous thing then bikes. Just like they are more concerned with pistols being shot off in neighbourhoods than BB guns. This makes perfect sense.
Craig March 07, 2012 at 01:30 AM
LOL, Funny you mentioned it: http://menomoneefalls.patch.com/search?keywords=concealed+bb+gun

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