Emily Fischer did not expect herself to be advocating for traffic safety, but now she is. This summer Fischer's close friend, Cary Girod, was struck and killed while bicycling on a state highway outside of the southwest Washington town of Raymond. After driving out from Massachusetts and celebrating the Fourth of July with Fischer, Girod and her boyfriend left on a bike trip. They were riding on the shoulder of State Highway 105, wearing bright clothing, in full daylight, when a van traveling at around 55 miles per hour crossed over the white line.
Her boyfriend was injured but remained conscious, while Girod was in much worse shape. The next time Fischer saw Girod she was unrecognizable, lying in a hospital bed at Harborview.
When one person's actions kill another, even if unintentionally, the public generally expects serious consequences: a charge of manslaughter, loss of a job, suspension of a license or jail time. In Washington state however, when a driver through basic negligence hits and seriously injures or kills a pedestrian or bicyclist, he or she can expect only a traffic ticket.
To the Cascade Bicycle Club and its supporters this is a grave injustice. Last legislative session, the group introduced a bill that would have made negligent driving a misdemeanor. The bill did not pass, but the club is currently working with legislators to come up with a new bill for the session that begins in January.
Last year nine bicyclists and 63 pedestrians were killed on Washington roads, with many others seriously injured. The Cascade Bicycle Club has collected data on the specifics of these collisions, which they presented at a Traffic Justice summit Wed., Oct. 14 at Seattle City Hall. The summit, which was attended by a few hundred people, also included presentations by local researchers and political figures, as well as testimony of people who had either been in a collision while bicycling, or lost a loved one in such a collision.
David Hiller, Advocacy Director for the Cascade Bicycle Club, emphasized that the issue is not about freak accidents, but cases where the driver was clearly failing to act in a safe manner. One such case was that of Tatsuo Nakata who was struck and killed by a distracted driver while crossing the street in a clearly marked crosswalk in West Seattle. By combining forces between pedestrians and bicyclists under the term "vulnerable roadway users" (which would also include agricultural workers driving along the shoulder in slow-moving vehicles), the bicycle club is able to increase its base to lobby for legislation holding negligent drivers accountable.
The file on the investigation of the collision that killed Girod is still in final review, but once it goes to the prosecutor's office, they will decide a penalty for the driver of the van, Gregory Cedell. Police listed the cause of the collision as driver inattention. "He is at fault for the collision. We all know that," says Washington state trooper Krista Hedstrom.
If Cedell is not charged with a felony, he will be issued a ticket for a traffic violation, says Hedstrom, with at most a $550 fine. For comparison, the most common littering violation -- throwing a cigarette out of a vehicle -- carries a fine of $1,025, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology.
Advocates are still debating the penalty for negligent drivers. While the original legislation called for a misdemeanor resulting in up to a year of jail time, other penalties, such as license suspension and stiffer fines, have also been suggested. A final bill is not yet complete, but the Cascade Bicycle Club will push for the legislation that the members want, says Hiller: "We're here to protect our constituents."
Speaking at the Traffic Justice summit, state senator Adam Kline (D - SE Seattle) said that it may take time to get stronger legislation passed. The challenge, he said, is that probably everybody in the audience has been distracted while driving before, and it's only out of luck that most of the time no one was seriously hurt or killed as a result. Still, distractions are increasingly being recognized as making the roadways more dangerous. Legislation restricting the use of cell phones or texting while driving reflect this.
A stricter charge for killing someone while driving is vehicular homicide, but the bar is set high for this felony, explained city attorney Tom Carr at the summit. The charge, which would result in a prison sentence, requires proof of reckless and wanton disregard for safety. It has not been found to apply to cases where the driver was simply inattentive, without also speeding or driving under the influence. The Cascade Bicycle Club wants a law that would be less serious than vehicular homicide yet have greater consequences than a traffic infraction.
In 2005 Carr helped create a Seattle city ordinance that would have made traffic infractions, like failing to yield the right of way, criminal in cases resulting in a pedestrian's or bicyclist's death. Earlier this year the ordinance was struck down by the Appeals Court because it contradicted state law and tied the charge to the result of the driver's behavior, rather than the behavior itself. The law wouldn't have applied to cases such as Girod's, which occurred outside the city of Seattle.
For the first month after her friend's death, Fischer did not get on her bicycle. She knows that's not what Girod, an avid bicyclist, would have wanted. Now when she's riding her bike she takes extra precautions, but she says, "I'm uncomfortable with the fact that drivers can take risks that don't compromise their safety, but do compromise my safety."
A range of charges is already on the books for drivers who show any signs of having consumed alcohol, and these charges do not require proof of an intent to cause harm. In Washington state if a driver is convicted with a first offense DUI it is a gross misdemeanor punishable with up to one year in jail, a fine between the amounts of $350 and $5,000, and a license suspension for a minimum of 90 days. Hiller points out that there was a time when it was not an offense to get behind the wheel drunk. Fischer wants it to be socially unacceptable for drivers to be inattentive as well.
According to her obituary, Girod was a highly regarded math teacher and an adventurous outdoor enthusiast. Fischer remembers how she organized a weekly ladies' night for their circle of friends. "She was the kind of person we all want to be," she says.
Fischer waited at Harborview hospital while Girod's family flew in from the East Coast. Meanwhile, Girod was kept alive so that her organs could be donated. Remembering that awful night at the hospital and looking at the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists killed each year in Washington state, Fischer knows that other families and friends are suffering their own horrible losses at Harborview regularly. "There's a situation like Cary's going on all the time," she said.
Fischer and many others want to change that.