Posted on Mar 11, 2012

Members of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin were among the crowds in Madison on Tuesday, February 21, to buttonhole legislators to pass the Vulnerable User Bill.

The bill would create a new system of penalties for automobile and truck drivers who injure or kill less-protected people on Wisconsin's roads and highways. Among the "vulnerable users" who would be protected by the legislation are:

  • bicycle riders
  • motorcycle riders
  • pedestrians
  • emergency responders
  • in-line skaters
  • farmers driving farm equipment

The bill — Senate Bill 431 — was introduced in the State Senate earlier in February. Three other states already have similar laws in place, and a comparable law is now being considered in Maryland.

Supporters of the law say existing rules are not flexible enough to give prosecutors leverage against irresponsible drivers. Under existing criminal law, a prosecutor must prove a truck driver was criminally negligent in causing a fatal collision with a motorcycle. Here, "criminal negligence" means so irresponsible an action that there was an unreasonable risk of great bodily harm. Civil law — used in personal injury lawsuits — relies on the standard of ordinary negligence, which “occurs when a person fails to exercise ordinary care, such as if a person is driving a car and changing the radio station at the same time.”

Prosecutors say the criminal negligence standard is just too tough to prove, so often careless drivers get away without any criminal charges being filed. The Vulnerable User Bill, if it became law, would provide another option for a prosecutor. Under the provisions of the bill, for instance, a traffic offense that kills or harms a member of the vulnerable user group can be treated as a felony punishable by $10,000 in fines and a prison term as long as six years.

Hupy and Abraham is watching this legislation with interest. We firmly support any action that will improve safety on the roadways, and we have long recognized that pedestrians and motorcyclists are at a disadvantage against other users of Wisconsin roadways. We will continue to track this bill if, as expected, Madison lawmakers act on the issue next session.

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