There are a lot of things we do while bicycling to avoid accidents and injuries. For safety’s sake, we should be doing these kinds of things:
- Safe behaviors: for example, stopping at stop signs and red lights; riding defensively, watching what motorists around us are doing that could create problems for us; riding single file when a car approaches from behind; staying alert to avoid collision with a fellow cyclist
- Safety equipment on our bikes: blinking lights both front and back, certainly at night but equally important during the day; rear-view mirror(s)
- Bike helmet, as a last line of defense to protect our heads if the above things fail and we do fall
Even if we do all of these, unfortunately there’s still a chance that a motorist will do something wrong, hit a cyclist, and cause a serious injury or worse. If the motorist is found (or pleads) guilty of careless driving, then the Vulnerable User law may come into play.
The driver who hit White Clay Bicycle Club long-time member Bob Wheeler is the first motorist to be charged under the Delaware Vulnerable User law and receive the associated penalties. Ironically, Bob was present when Governor Markell signed SB 269 into law, in August, 2010. He’s second from the right in the photo.
The bill, modeled after an Oregon law, enhances the penalty for drivers convicted of careless or inattentive driving who cause serious physical injury to cyclists, pedestrians and other vulnerable road users. The new law includes sentencing guidelines such as:
- Completion of a traffic safety course
- Performance of up to 100 hours of community service related to driver improvement and providing public education on traffic safety
It has been a bumpy road, however, to get the “new” penalties imposed. Having been present when Bob was hit, as well as representing WCBC and Bike Delaware, I have closely followed the case since that fateful day last June. Amy Wilburn, chair of Delaware Bicycle Council (DBC), has also followed the case, since the DBC had taken the lead several years ago to get the Vulnerable User law passed.
I spoke several times with the investigating officer, about the details of the accident as well as my perspective that the only possible good that might come of the whole affair was the driver sharing her experience and key learnings with other motorists, through the community service penalty. When the police report finally went to the Attorney General’s office I spoke with the state trooper on the DBC who had connections with the law enforcement organization. When I learned that the case had been closed, with the driver pleading guilty to the charge of careless driving causing serious injury to a vulnerable user, Amy Wilburn and I each spoke with the Deputy Attorney General about our interest in making sure the community service was relevant to bicyclists’ rights on the road.
Those last conversations led to the realization that the judge failed to impose the Vulnerable User penalties on the driver. Although the law was passed two years ago, the database of penalties used by judges had not been updated with the new penalties. The Deputy Attorney General filed a motion calling for a resentencing hearing, which took place in mid-January. Finally, the case is closed…except the sentence includes the requirement for the driver to return to court after one year, to confirm that she has completed the community service. (If she doesn’t, then she is subject to fines and the suspension of her drivers license.)
The community service discussed at the resentencing hearing is for the driver to participate in the development of a “community service announcement. The hope is that the message conveys how critical it is for motorists to be aware of their surroundings and the presence of cyclists and other vulnerable users. Amy Wilburn and the DBC along with DelDOT will now take the lead in this project, but be assured I’ll be following it as well.
Carol Ireland is the president of the White Clay Bicycle club and the secretary of Bike Delaware.