House-backed bill punishing drivers for pedestrian crashes stuck in Senate committee

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Under current law, motorists who injure or kill a bicyclist, jogger or scooter rider in Maryland routinely walk away with nothing more than a traffic ticket.

An effort to significantly increase penalties for those collisions has received unanimous approval in the House of Delegates this year. But final General Assembly passage is in doubt, as the chairman of the Senate committee that must also approve the measure has not scheduled a vote.

The legislation is a top priority of advocacy groups, and comes as the push accelerates for Complete Streets that make better use of roadways for all types of transportation.

The penalties for those who injure or kill “vulnerable individuals” using roads alongside cars must offer a measure of deterrence, advocates say. The bill defines those as people working on highways or roadside utility facilities, providing emergency services, riding or walking animals, and anyone lawfully walking or using a bike, scooter, wheelchair or assorted other vehicles on a highway or adjacent path.

Under the proposed law, motorists who violate a vehicle law–such as crossing a line or driving while distracted–would be charged with a misdemeanor and face a fine of up to $2,000, and could also be ordered to perform community service.

Tamara Basso Bensky, an accountant who lives in Owings Mills, said the motorist who fatally struck her bicycle-riding husband in 2010 hardly suffered any consequences, while leaving her family devastated.

“It is just unfathomable that this woman who killed my husband, who took away the father of my children, paid a $500 fine and walked away,” Bensky said.

Bensky became an advocate for bicycle safety laws and joined the board of Bike Maryland, which is fighting for the new penalty legislation.

The proposed legal change, she said, will provide “accountability and awareness that is incredibly necessary and important, and will save lives.”

Nine other states have such a law, said Joshua Feldmark, executive director of Bike Maryland.

Lawmakers filed identical bills this year in both the House and the Senate, at least one of which must pass both chambers.

The House version of the bill passed by a 141-0 vote in Annapolis in late February, after all members of the Environment and Transportation Committee, Republicans and Democrats alike, agreed to sign on as co-sponsors.

But in the Senate, an identical bill has not come up for a vote in the Judicial Proceedings Committee, chaired by Sen. Bobby Zirkin (D-Baltimore County). Del. Stephen Lafferty (D-Baltimore County), who sponsored the House version, noted the legislation is stuck in committee, but said he’s not sure why, and to contact Zirkin.

Committee chairs in Maryland have significant autonomy to hold bills and not let them be voted on, if they so desire.

Zirkin has not responded to multiple requests from¬†Baltimore Fishbowl on the bill’s status.

Advocates who have asked him about the legislation said he has told them he is more interested in pursuing infrastructure improvements, which are outside the purview of his committee, than altering penalties.

The change is needed, advocates said, because traffic laws as currently designed do not allow for more vigorous prosecutions. Motorists currently only face tough penalties for hitting a bicyclist if they commit “gross negligence,” a legal standard that involves acting in a reckless manner or without regard to consequences, and is rarely proven.

Jed Weeks, policy director for Baltimore-based cycling advocacy group Bikemore, said laws that punish drivers for hitting vulnerable individuals serve as “a deterrent and an instrument of accountability for negligent drivers that hurt and kill pedestrians.”

Citing statistics from Baltimore’s Department of Transportation, he noted Baltimore accounts for nearly a third of all statewide pedestrian crashes and 17 percent of all traffic-related pedestrian injuries, with a third of those injured being minors. “This legislation will save lives in Baltimore and should be passed out of committee,” Weeks said.

Feldmark acknowledged changes in the law aren’t the full solution to protect cyclists or walkers, but said it is part of the answer as the fight for more funding for Complete Streets continues.

Until then, he said, “we either have to keep bicyclists off this road, or we have to create the laws that make them safe.”



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