Sunday, Sept. 24, 2012 was a beautiful fall day. Heather Barnett left her house a little later than usual. She had worked from her Phinney home for a couple of hours before heading to the UW campus. A bit sore from her first-ever cyclocross race the day before, she considered not biking into work but by 10:45 a.m. she was coasting down 8th Avenue NW on the new-to-her cyclocross bike she had just bought, a smile on her face.
Her commute went like any other morning until she arrived at the intersection of 8th Avenue NW and NW 47th Street. With no stop sign on the north-to-south arterial, she continued pedaling along until an SUV blew through a side street stop sign and t-boned her.
The driver stopped and jumped out. She looked at the blood gushing from Heather’s face and ran back to the car to grab Heather a paper napkin.
“I initially thanked her for stopping and bringing me a napkin,” recalled Heather. “Then another driver stopped and called an ambulance.”
The ambulance took Heather away before she even had a chance to talk to the police on scene.
Heather’s injuries were severe. In the collision, her left knee had been the main point of contact, leaving dents in both the front end of the car and the bike frame. The impact tore her MCL, chipped her femur and broke her tibia. She also broke both her wrists, her nose and split her lip.
“I spent five days in the hospital unable to move and going in and out of surgery,” said Heather, who at the time of our interview was still walking with a cane. “A screw now holds the femur together and a cadaver bone was used to fix the tibia.”
Once released from the hospital, Heather spent months in a wheelchair and her boyfriend, Josh, took two months off work to take care of her. They also temporarily moved in with friends because their home was inaccessible by wheelchair.
Since it was evident that medical bills would be piling up, Josh contacted cycling attorney John Duggan.
“My initial reaction was that this is serious,” said Duggan. “There are medical bills to be paid, loss of wages, reparation and unfortunately, we found out that this person [the driver] has no coverage.”
Moreover, it turned out that the driver had not been cited for anything at the scene. While Duggan started working to get the $100,000 of medical bills paid, they also started pushing law enforcement to cite the driver, specifically for a Vulnerable User charge.
“We were most interested in a citation to show proof of liability,” explained Heather. “Collisions like this just aren’t taken very seriously – the cyclist gets taken away in the ambulance, and the driver moves on with their lives. It’s just not right.”
Under the Vulnerable User Law, which Cascade worked to pass through the Washington Legislature in 2011, a driver committing a traffic infraction—such as speeding, texting while driving or running a stop sign—that results in the serious injury or death of a vulnerable roadway user will face an automatic fine of up to $5,000 and a 90-day suspension of driving privileges.
“In short, the point of this Vulnerable User Law is to increase the penalties so people realize there are consequences to not paying attention,” explained Duggan.
It took weeks before they were able to speak to the police officer on the case.
“The officer was less than receptive,” voiced Duggan with agitation. “Non-cooperative even.”
Once they were able to get a hold of the officer, they asked her about the lack of citation. The officer explained she was not familiar with the Vulnerable User Law but after revisiting the accident report, she was eventually willing to write a failure to yield citation.
“The [Vulnerable User] law is there but I’m under the impression that no one knows about it. It shouldn’t be up to the victim to enlighten law enforcement about this law.”
Now on a mission, Josh went up the chain of command and reached out to the City Attorney’s Office.
“We spoke to with Assistant City Attorney Mindy Longanecker who felt it was a serious enough case that the police should turn it over to traffic investigations and wanted to go ahead with the Vulnerable User charge,” said Heather.
On Jan. 25, the City Attorney’s Office filed charges against the driver, including failure to yield, driving without insurance and a negligent driving in the second degree vulnerable user charge. Combined, the fines add up to $11,184.00.
“I don’t feel malignant toward the driver,” Heather said. “I’m just frustrated that there would have been no outcome, no consequence for the driver. If we hadn’t gone after it, there would have been no fee or consequence at all.”
“It’s been a really bizarre adventure,” continued Heather. “And it’s been a lot of effort on our – the victim’s – part. We wouldn’t be getting anywhere if he hadn’t pushed so hard. Josh went above and beyond to put pressure on to get some kind of outcome.”
All their work was undone on Feb. 20, when the court dismissed the vulnerable user charge based on procedural grounds.
While the city is currently in the process of appealing the court’s decision, Duggan believes efforts should be made to raise awareness and educate law enforcement.
“It does not appear that any of the police agencies seem to know anything about the vulnerable user law. This needs to change,” said Duggan, who’s handling 60 more cases like Heather’s.
“In cases like this, where there are serious injuries, the law must be applied. There’s a serious lack of awareness of bicyclists on the road,” Duggan said. “If people are aware that if they were to hit a cyclist, they’re looking at a more severe penalty than just a ticket, hopefully it would get people to start paying attention.”
Cascade staff are currently working with Duggan and others to publicize the existence of the law.