Are biker lives worth less than any other victim of a vehicle accident? I’m serious! It seems that way when it comes to prosecuting and punishing distracted drivers who cause accidents. Or maybe it’s my imagination. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. After last month’s column on the distracted driving bills in Washington, I had a reader drop me a note that theorized as to why the biker community has no interest in working on coalitions to advocate for the distracted driving proposals. My reader suggested that it’s because such laws are generally worthless because “seriously injuring or even killing a motorcyclist carries little penalty regardless of the cause.”
As I think about it, I fear he may be right. How many times have we seen our fellow riders involved in terrible accidents caused by vehicle drivers, and the driver gets off with a minor infraction such as “inattentive driving” or “running a stop sign”? Meanwhile someone on a motorcycle is horribly injured or worse, killed. My reader tells of a riding buddy who has been crippled for life when a young woman made a left turn in front of him last year. She was written a “failure to yield” ticket and fined $188.
He points out that there is no interest on the part of police or prosecutors, to bring charges against careless drivers, even when the results of their carelessness are horrific injuries or death. It’s true, there are statutes already on the books to allow charging such drivers with vehicular manslaughter or vehicular assault – both criminal felonies that come with substantial jail time.
Is my reader right? He very well could be. It would be fascinating to dig up the statistics and research and compare how many times vehicle to vehicle accidents that result in significant injury or death bring higher charges beyond the traffic infraction compared to vehicle to motorcycle accidents. I have to wonder if sometimes police and prosecutors somehow feel motorcycle riders deserve the injuries they sustain in an accident because we ride a “dangerous vehicle”, as opposed to occupants in a car who are injured for the same reason. Prosecutors have ultimate discretion as to whether or not to file a charge, and what to charge a suspect with, and whether or not to accept a plea bargain. They could choose to send a message by upping the charges in the cases of serious accidents where the driver of the vehicle is at fault and they seriously injure or kill a motorcycle rider. Apparently, they aren’t. I can’t recall reading of a recent incident where they have.
Conversely, my reader points out, in Europe its different. If a driver hits or causes an accident with a motorcyclist or bicyclists, the penalties are more severe, and in Japan one can lose one’s license for life if convicted of negligent driving. Here it takes multiple convictions of DUI for someone to lose their license for life, and those are rare. No one loses a license for distracted or negligent driving, no matter how bad the accident or injuries.
So is this why we can’t get riders excited about supporting and advocating for the distracted driving bills? Perhaps. I know sometimes I sound like a broken record – urging the riding community to get behind proposed bills and policy that can actually do some good for us, but that aren’t exactly “biker specific” like helmet laws and lane-splitting. Working in conjunction with other groups on issues like gas taxes, road construction, and distracted driving can help us gain friends who would help down the road on issues that are more biker specific. I spent nearly thirty years lobbying for various causes and clients, and rarely did we get anything done on our own without some sort of coalition building. You’d think after years of not getting any real headway on our biker specific issues, we would have learned by now.
I do think that the distracted driving bill that just passed the Washington legislature, and as I write this, waiting for the Governor to sign or veto it, will be helpful to a degree in the long run. It will take some time – perhaps a long time – to get people to change their behavior, and it doesn’t go into effect until January 1, 2019, a year and a half from now. We’ve come a long way since the drunk driving legislation of the 80s as far as changing most folks behavior when drinking, but there will always be some who drive drunk. Lets hope this does the same for distracted drivers.
We have all become wedded to our electronic devices and we rarely put them down. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. I like the fact that the new law has more substantial definitions of what “distracted driving” is and what “using electronic devices” consists of. I like that the penalties are substantial, and double upon subsequent convictions, and that it is reported to insurance companies as the monetary penalties extracted by higher insurance premiums will be something that is a real deterrent.
But until prosecutors and police use the existing tools at their disposal – until they charge those who cause accidents and injuries with more substantial crimes such as vehicular homicide or assault, the impact of any distracted driving law will lessened – and maybe biker lives really are worth less than others.
Gary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can read his blog at http://grgardner.livejournal.com