VRU Bills in the News

December 19, 2023

Thanks to MIRS for interviewing LMB staff for the following story, and for granting us permission to republish it here!

Wheels Turn Again On Stiffer Penalties For Drivers Who Hit Bicyclists, Pedestrians

By Samantha Shriber

Original publication date: Dec. 15, 2023

The wheels are turning again on legislation to charge motorists with a $7,500, 15-year felony for fatally hitting a pedestrian or bicyclist – a policy change that the League of Michigan Bicyclists (LMB) has pushed for since as early as 2009.  

The push comes after Mandy BENN, 44, was sentenced to 70 years in prison after crashing into five bicyclists who were on a Make-A-Wish Michigan charity ride in July 2022, killing two of them and seriously injuring two more. Benn said she was attempting to pass a UPS truck, but drugs were found in her system after the fact.

Didn’t the legal system work in this case?

“The prosecutor did charge her with second degree murder, but had to do a lot of work to prove that charge,” said Matthew PENNIMAN, the communications and advocacy director for LMB. He said the legislation extends the penalties for drivers who hit those operating farm equipment on the road to a new group to be defined as “vulnerable roadway users.

“My understanding is that under current law, there’s a relatively limited number of charges that a prosecutor can bring when a vulnerable road user, like a pedestrian or a bicyclist, is killed by a driver. And in many cases, those potential charges are either too limited for the gravity of a serious injury or death . . . or they’re so serious that they’re very difficult to prove,” 

This term’s legislation consists of SB 617 by Sen. Sean MCCANN (D-Kalamazoo), SB 618 by Sen. Veronica KLINEFELT (D-Eastpointe), HB 5223 by Rep. Julie ROGERS (D-Kalamazoo), and HB 5224 by Rep. Bill G. SCHUETTE (R-Midland). 

Under the bills, a “vulnerable roadway user” could additionally include a roller skater and a skateboarder, an individual moving in a wheelchair and somebody who’s riding a horse or operating a horse-drawn carriage. 

Preliminary 2022 fatality data published by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) estimates that 7,508 pedestrians were killed nationwide in traffic crashes, representing a 1% increase in pedestrian fatalities since 7,443 reported deaths in 2021, as well as “the highest number of pedestrian deaths since 1981.”  

In Michigan, more than 680 pedestrian deaths occurred from 2019 through 2022. 

Although preliminary data projected that 179 pedestrian fatalities took place in Michigan during 2022 – a 2.2 percent decrease from 2021 – the state remains above some of its Midwestern peers, as 46 pedestrian fatalities are projected to have occurred in Minnesota last year, 166 in Ohio, 75 in Wisconsin and 109 in Indiana. 

Moreover, the bills are arriving at a time when money is being invested in pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, especially after the U.S. Department of Transportation distributed the latest $817 million in grant funding on Dec. 14 for “Safe Streets & Roads for All,” which is part of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Among recipients of the 385 awards, is Detroit, where $24.8 million will be used to enhance safety and bus stop accessibility at 56 “high-crash intersections” within the city, with affiliated efforts to feature upgraded intersection lighting, advanced visibility for crosswalks and sidewalk widening and wheelchair-accessible curb ramp projects. 

More than $24 million will be coming to Dearborn also, with the intention of developing LED lighting and a distinguished bike lane on a two-mile stretch of Warren Avenue, where driving lanes are planned to be reduced from five to two (with turning lanes). 

In Michigan’s own Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 budget, $3.5 million in one-time, General Fund spending was dedicated to a “Shared Streets and Spaces” grant program, created to assist local governments with mobility projects, like bike-share initiatives and modifications to pedestrian signals (See “Could $3.5M For Pedestrian, Bicycle-Friendly Cities Attract More Young People?” 7/27/2023). 

“I think that’s exactly why there’s so much discussion on it – there’s a push to get people out walking about in their communities, on biking trails…just (to) get people connected to their community more, and I think that increases the quality of life, and it also attracts people to want to work and stay here,” Klinefelt told MIRS

She added that in her own community of Eastpointe in Macomb County, she’s personally seen what appeared to be the aftermath of a woman hit by a motorist while moving around in her wheelchair. She’s also seen bicyclists on her local roadways struck by vehicles. 

“It just seems to me that we need to send a message that if you seriously injure somebody because you’re not paying attention, you’re gonna pay a stiff penalty for that,” Klinefelt said. 

Under the bills, a motorist who strikes a “vulnerable roadway user,” resulting in a serious injury that requires inpatient treatment at a hospital or a post-acute rehabilitation facility, could face a five-year, $5,000 felony. 

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