LACBC and the proposed California Vulnerable User Law

The LACBC has been busy lately.

The 11-year old organization, more formally known as the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition, has rapidly grown to become the area’s leading bicycling organization. Yet when you talk to cyclists, it’s not that unusual to hear various complaints about the group — mostly along the lines of “they don’t do anything.”

Personally, I haven’t had enough interaction with LACBC to offer an informed opinion. Though I can say that virtually every time I’ve attended a meeting of the city council, transportation committee or the Bicycle Advisory Committee to address some bicycling issue, they’ve been there as well.

In just the last few months, they’ve addressed issues ranging from the Sharrows Pilot Project and a potential bikeway along Compton Creek, to making the 4th Street Bike Boulevard a reality. As well as taking a very polite stand on improving the proposed, and much-maligned, L.A. Bike Master Plan.

Recently, though, the LACBC sent out an email blast announcing that they were working with various agencies to develop a Vulnerable User Law, “which protects cyclists, pedestrians, highway workers, skateboarders, and other vulnerable road users and it establishes stricter penalties for anyone who kills or seriously injures a vulnerable user and is convicted of careless driving.”

Oregon and Illinois have already passed similar laws, while the governor of Texas recently vetoed such legislation. And several other states, including New York and Rhode Island have considered their own bills, with varying degrees of success.

It’s a revolutionary concept in American liability law, establishing stricter penalties for drivers who kill or injure cyclists, pedestrians and other vulnerable users — in other words, anyone on the street who isn’t protected by 2,000 or more pounds of steel and glass.

However, it doesn’t begin to approach the laws in Denmark and Holland, which assign responsibility for any accident to the driver, because, as a European Union proposal put it, “Whoever is responsible, pedestrians and cyclists usually suffer more.”

Or as the publication Cycling in the Netherlands, published by the Dutch Directorate-General for Passenger Transport puts it:

Something that should not be overlooked in the safety section: Liability. In some countries, bicycling is seen as causing danger, which sometimes ends up in an anti-cycling policy. The Dutch philosophy is: Cyclists are not dangerous; cars and car drivers are: so car drivers should take the responsibility for avoiding collisions with cyclists. This implies that car drivers are almost always liable when a collision with a bicycle occurs and should adapt their speed when bicycles share the roads with cyclists.

On the other hand, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to pass a law anywhere in the U.S. that automatically assigns responsibility to the driver in the event of an accident — and especially in car-centric California.

But it just might be possible to assign greater responsibility to the operator of the more dangerous vehicle. For instance, bus and truck drivers would bear more responsibility than car drivers; car drivers would bear more responsibility than motorcyclists; motorcyclists would bear more responsibility than bicyclists, who would have more responsibility than pedestrians.

In each case, the operator of the more dangerous vehicle should have greater responsibility for avoiding a collision simply because they are capable of causing greater harm.

But I also have another concern about the LACBC’s proposal.

Their decision to focus on a Vulnerable User Law ignores the need for a more encompassing Bicycle Safety Law, such as those recently passed in Colorado and Massachusetts — laws that mandate a minimum three-foot passing distance, ban harassment of cyclists, and give cyclists riding in a bike lane the same level of protection as a pedestrian in a crosswalk, among other things.

Yes, a Vulnerable User Law can and should be a part of that. But only a part of it.

And by focusing only on just on aspect, it greatly reduces the possibility that a competing Bike Safety Law could be passed in the same legislative session. A law that would protect a rider’s safety before an accident, rather than merely increasing the penalty afterwards — and then only if the driver is charged with careless driving.

It’s a good start.

But it’s only a start.

……….

The LACBC is also looking for volunteers to count pedestrians and cyclists at key intersections throughout the city. A Malibu writer says it’s time to get bikes off of PCH. Streetsblog’s Damien Newton invites riders to join him for a tour of Park(ing) Day LA installations. Pasadena considers heresy by removing a car lane for cyclists and pedestrians at the Rose Bowl. A boy is hit by a car while riding in Winnetka. If you need more speed for your next crit, an Oregon man is offering home-made rocket engines for bicycles. Maybe you missed this video of a New York cyclist using his U-lock on an angry pedestrian. A firefighter is charged with shooting a cyclist after trying to warn him against riding with his child on a busy street. A British grocer is forced to pull its ad for a build-it-yourself bike after viewers notice they put the fork on backwards. Cyclists in Kenya can recharge their cell phones while riding their bikes. Finally, this year’s le Tour winner says he has no respect for Lance — and never did. I guess seven wins just doesn’t mean what it used to.

4 comments

  1. Chet K says:

    As a member of LACBC, thanks for bringing some more visibility to some of the work being done to try to improve bicycling in LA. Your post may be helpful to some of the people too lazy to find out what is being done on their behalf, and who are content to sit behind their uninformed opinions that LACBC doesn’t do anything.

    The legislation issues you raise are obviously not easy, especially given the cultural sensitivity here as compared to Europe, as you point out. While LACBC did comment in the recent email blast on its actions in promoting a Vunerable User Law, comments are actively being solicited on all aspects of possible viable legislation, including a more encompassing bike safety law, if that would make sense here. I don’t believe LACBC has discounted any possible solution, or set of solutions, that could result in safer roadways. What is needed is more constructive input and participation by interested road users to help push this forward.

    Any solutions will ultimately need to pass both a legal and common sense test to be supported and adopted. Your suggestion of a graduated scale of responsibility, for example, raises some real issues. First, while I’m not a lawyer, this would seem to open a real minefield of legal issues to determine a fair measure of liability across all classes of road users. Second, there is a common sense issue to consider here – if a bicyclist is hit by some other errant vehicle, does it really matter whether is was a motorcycle, a farm tractor, a minivan or an 18 wheeler? I think the Vehicle Code is pretty clear that all drivers share the same responsibilities and liabilities.

    Thanks for helping move the debate forward, hopefully a few more concerned cyclists will get themselves informed about LACBC and maybe take the next step up to become involved and start to become part of the solution.

    • bikinginla says:

      Thanks for your comments. I’m glad to hear LACBC is looking for input on the proposed legislation; a link on the LACBC website to respond with comments would help.

      As for assigning greater responsibility to the more dangerous vehicle, let me clarify a little. I’m not suggesting that a truck driver who strikes a cyclist should have more responsibility than a car driver or motorcyclist would in the same situation; just that the operator of any vehicle should bear more responsibility when striking a more vulnerable road user, in recognition of the inherent potential of that vehicle to cause harm.

  2. [...] a legislative priority is pretty popular. Others: Virgina Bicycling Federation. Some talk about the LA County bike coalition [...]

  3. [...] 3314, scroll down) and currently is under discussion in several other states, including Washington, California and Virginia. These laws already exist in bicycle friendly countries such as Denmark and The [...]

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