Every year, injuries and fatalities occur when vehicles collide with other roadway users who are not as as well protected.
To address this problem, Rep. Gary Bies and I have introduced legislation to modify traffic violation penalties when an accident occurs involving vulnerable highway users. This legislation received public hearings in both the Assembly and the Senate in October.
Our bill, Senate Bill 307. defines vulnerable users as pedestrians, bicyclists, a person driving a moped or motor bike, a person riding on an animal-drawn vehicle or farm tractor, a person riding in-line skates, a horse or a play vehicle, law enforcement or emergency services operators while performing official duties, a person who is rendering assistance to another.
At one of the public hearings on this bill, the Senate Committee on Transportation, Public Safety and Veterans and Military Affairs heard testimony from the families and friends of bicyclists who were killed in accidents involving motor vehicles.
These families learned that under current law, it is difficult for police and prosecutors to apply a consequence in line with the actions that have taken place.
The committee learned that the resulting penalties for drivers of motor vehicles involving the deaths of two bicyclists were less than $300 each.
For example, a man from Muskego was struck and killed by a driver who fell asleep at the wheel. The driver crossed the center line and hit this bicyclist head-on. The resulting fine was $126 for failure to keep control of the vehicle.
The committee also heard from the loved ones of another bicyclist who was struck and killed by a driver who received a $206.80 fine for driving left of the center line and speeding.
But it isn’t just bicyclists who get injured and killed on the roads. Between 2005 and 2012, there were nearly 1,400 collisions involving farm machinery, including 708 injuries and 25 fatalities.
Senate Bill 307 accomplishes two main goals. First, it raises awareness that Wisconsin roadways are used by more than just motor vehicles and in order to prevent injury to those not traveling with the protection of a vehicle, it is necessary to exercise caution while driving near them. This is similar to the double fines in work zones, which I believe have made all of us more aware that we may see a construction worker on the road while passing through a work zone. The bill also raises awareness by requiring all approved driver education courses to include instruction relating to vulnerable highway users.
Second, in the event that an accident occurs and a vulnerable user is hurt, this bill gives police and prosecutors additional tools so that they can apply consequences that match the severity of the incident.
District attorneys have expressed frustration that under current law, even in egregious situations, they are often only able to issue an offender a relatively small fine. Specifically, under this bill, violations that result in severe injury could face fines of up to $1,000 and up to 90 days in jail. Incidents that cause death could result in fines of up to $10,000 and up to nine months in jail.
I believe this legislation would fill a gap that exists in current law and I am hopeful it will come before the Assembly and the Senate for a vote as soon as possible.