THIS WEEK marks the one-year anniversary of the day a car hit bicyclist Tim O'Donnell on a rural Washington County road. The car's driver was not only uninsured, but also her Oregon license had been suspended and she'd traveled to Idaho and surreptitiously obtained a new one. Before her fatal crash with O'Donnell, the driver had already been in an accident with her new Idaho license.
Now, O'Donnell's widow, Mary, his friends at the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), and some supportive lawyers have drafted a law to try and close the legal loophole they believe keeps drivers with suspended licenses on the road.
Oregon is one of only four states without a vehicular homicide law, which means that if a "witless" but not technically "reckless" driver (according to 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. Thomas noted that in the last year, drivers with suspended licenses were more than twice as likely as totally legal drivers to crash.
The BTA'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," explains Thomas. The BTA wants the legal system to recognize that cars have dangerous potential, so driving one without a license or insurance could be considered homicidal.
But it's unclear whether a law that is primarily punitive rather than preventive will actually decrease biker deaths or just put wild drivers behind bars after the tragic fact. BTA Government Relations Director Karl Rohde thinks it can help, mostly by sending 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.
"Right now, the situation is if you have a suspended driver's license and you get pulled over, the penalty is, they suspend your driver's license. And then the second time that happens, they suspend your driver's license. And it just keeps going like that," Rohde says. "We need a law that takes these drivers off the road... they need to be taken out of society."