On this cloudy day last year, a car hit bicyclist Tim O’Donnell on a rural Washington County road. The car’s driver was not only uninsured, the state had suspended her license, she’d gone to Idaho and surreptitiously obtained a new one, then been in an accident with the new license before finally fatally crashing with O’Donnell.
Now, O’Donnell’s widow, Mary, his friends at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (B.T.A.) and some supportive lawyers have drafted a law to try and close the legal loopholes that keep drivers with suspended licenses on the road.
Here’s Mary at B.T.A’s press conference this morning - that pin is a photo of her husband.
Oregon is one of only four states without a vehicular homicide law, which means that if a “witless” but not technically “reckless” driver (in the words of BTA’s lawyer, Ray Thomas – “reckless” has a precise legal definition which includes drunks and drag racers, but not a driver whose license has been suspended multiple times or is uninsured) runs over a pedestrian or biker, the courts can’t charge them with homicide or manslaughter.
The B.T.A’s proposed law would change the legal code so that drivers with no insurance or suspended licenses who kill bikers or walkers would be charged with a class B felony – the same as criminally negligent homicide. ”Death, fault, driving without a license – those things add up to vehicular homicide,” explained Thomas, simply. Basically, the Bike Alliance wants the legal system to recognize that cars themselves have seriously dangerous potential, so driving one without a license or insurance could potentially be considered homicidal.
“Right now, the situation is if you have a suspended drivers license and you get pulled over, the penalty is, they suspend your drivers license. And then the second time that that happens, they suspend your drivers’ license. And it just keeps going like that,” said BTA government relations director Karl Rohde at this morning’s press conference announcing the idea for the law, “We need a law that takes these drivers off the road… they need to be taken out of society.”
Right, so it’s great that O’Donnell’s family and bikers around Portland are being proactive about changing a situation they think led to his death, but will a law like this which is punitive rather than preventative actually help keep bikers safer? Or will it just funnel more people into our (overcrowded, expensive, dehumanizing) prisons?
Rohde and Thomas agree that the preventative potential of the proposed law is somewhat weak, but believe it’s still an important one to get on the books, mostly to send a message to law enforcement that driving witlessly is a serious problem. They hope the law will cause police who pull over uninsured or unlicensed drivers to give the drivers more than a light slap on the wrist.
“It may not immediately make a difference, but in the long run it will,” said Thomas. “I think that, more and more, there’s probably a criminal element out there that’s driving while suspended that’s realizing, wow, there’s really no consequence, so ‘So what?’”
The bike legal team will be visiting Senator Floyd Prozanksi and Representative Tobias Read this summer and hope to have the law come to a vote during the legislative session next year.
Another funny note about the proposed law: to get support down in state legislature and senate, the B.T.A. is partnering an unusual alliance of truckers and the automotive insurance agency. That caused guys like motorcyclist Randy Phipps (below) to turn up at the press conference. Randy rides a 1000cc Sportster motorcycle and thinks the punitive nature of the proposed law is great – it just doesn’t go far enough.
“On a second or third suspension, we should be done with it,” he told me, “Lock ‘em up. We could lock up a few of them, and the others see it happening, they might change their habits.”
posted by Sarah Mirk