Photo by Elly Blue, via Flickr

The minivan driver, itching to make a left onto the Route 29 ramp, admitted to police that he saw the oncoming Orbea Orca road bike headed his way – but decided he could beat the cyclist, and took the turn anyway.

The ensuing T-bone collision in July 2017 sent cyclist Nigel Samaroo to the R. Adams Cawley Shock Trauma Center with a broken neck. Over months of rehabilitation, he relearned how to walk and use the right side of his body.

The crash left Samaroo, 56, of Columbia, with permanent spinal cord damage and a lifetime of chronic nerve pain ­– “as if someone is pouring boiling hot water on my skin 24-7.”

“I rode 2,000 to 4,000 miles a year before 2017,” Samaroo said. “I’m done. I can’t get back to doing that. For me, it’s one foot in front of the other. There’s a lot of pain that I live with and there’s no relief from that – zero – despite medications. If the driver had just waited five seconds for me to go by, none of this would have happened.”

The minivan driver, who remained at the crash scene, never appeared in court – nor did he have to. He was fined $110. At the time, this was the full legal penalty in Maryland for striking and injuring a cyclist with a car.

That’s changing. A bill passed by state lawmakers this year fills in gaps in the law and establishes new penalties for seriously injuring or killing “vulnerable road users” like cyclists, pedestrians, and road workers with a vehicle.

Negligent drivers who strike a vulnerable road user will face a mandatory court appearance and fines up to $2,000. Changes also include a suite of additional penalties available to judges like driver education, up to 150 hours of community service, and up to six months of a suspended driver’s license. The law takes effect in October.

Now, “if you break the law, and you hurt or kill a vulnerable road user, you have to go court, and you have to face up to what you’ve done,” said Joshua Feldmark of the advocacy group Bike Maryland. “You can learn what it’s like to be without your license.”

The measures would not apply to vulnerable road users who violate the rules of the road, like a cyclist weaving aggressively though traffic, Feldmark said.

On average, more than 800 bicycle and pedalcycle crashes occur each year on state roads, according to Motor Vehicle Administration data from 2013-2017. Of those, 8 in 10 resulted in a death or injury. About a quarter of reported incidents happened in Baltimore City, data shows.

Supporters had been trying for 10 years trying to get the legislation passed in Annapolis.

After a promising 2020 pitch cut short by the pandemic, advocates finally found success during the latest General Assembly session, thanks in part to new committee leadership and long-awaited support from state transportation officials, according to Feldmark. The legislation, HB 118 and SB 293, was re-filed for the 2021 session.

Feldmark, a former Bike Maryland executive director now serving as board chairman, said while there are typically more pedestrians struck statewide than cyclists, bicyclists are organized; they came through with compelling testimony for lawmakers about fatal accidents.

Samaroo, who also serves on the board of Bike Maryland, said there were audible gasps in the hearing room when he recounted his story to lawmakers. And though the memory was painful, this life-changing incident fueled his desire to do something that might help people. “I don’t mind re-telling that story as many times as I need to if it will make a difference for someone else,” he said.

Samaroo added that he’s never spoken to the driver of the commercial van, and he is currently pursuing civil litigation against the corporate owner.

State Sen. Mary Beth Carozza, an Eastern Shore Republican, was a co-sponsor of the vulnerable road user legislation, along with Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher, a Montgomery County Democrat. She also helped pass a similar bill out of this year’s session, known as Wade’s Law, that creates new criminal penalties for negligent drivers who cause a life-threatening injury.

SB 17 honors Wade Pusey, the Worcester County Public Works crewman struck by a car while in a work zone in 2016. Pusey, then 23, suffered permanent injuries. His colleague Scott Tatterson, 48, was killed in the collision on Greenbackville Road in Stockton.

Carozza, who spent five years trying to pass Wade’s Law, called the passage of the two bills “major wins” for victims and public safety in general.

“It does go to show that you have to aggressively and consistently work these types of bills to see them through for final passage,” Carozza said, crediting victims and their families with the testimony that finally swayed lawmakers. “This year, there was a real sense of – that these bills that had a public safety focus, to work them, and have them cross the finish line.”

The House version of the bill also had bipartisan sponsorship, in delegates Dana Stein, a Baltimore County Democrat; and Michael E. Malone, an Anne Arundel County Republican.

Previously under state law, the only penalty for criminally negligent driving causing life-threatening injuries was a $500 fine. At the same time, however, a manslaughter conviction carries a penalty of three years in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000.

Wade’s Law makes a negligent driving conviction a misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000.

“You should have a just penalty for that same criminally negligent driver causing a life-threatening injury,” Carozza said. “How do you tell the families this is the only penalty? It really became a crusade for a just penalty.”