Will a new bill introduced in the state senate provide more protection for bicyclists and other vulnerable road users? Community law enforcement officials have mixed feelings.
The bill, introduced Feb. 6, would elevate penalties against motorists who commit traffic violations that injure or kill vulnerable road users.
A fatal bike-car collision in Oak Creek last July is one of several incidents lobbyists with the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin are pointing to as evidence that tougher laws are necessary. The driver in that case, Joshua Chomicki, crossed the center line and hit 56-year-old Sam Ferrito, who was biking in the same direction on the opposite side of Nicholson Road.
Chomicki was cited for two traffic violations — driving over the center line and speeding, for a total fine of $206.80 — but he was not criminally prosecuted, leaving many cycling advocates frustrated. Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Grant Huebner told the Journal Sentinel he did not believe he could meet the standard of criminal negligence with the facts at hand.
"Those are the situations we’re trying to address," said Dave Schlabowski, communications director for the federation. "It’s not trying to call it homicide; it’s trying to raise the level of responsibility for driving."
What's in the bill
Under the new bill, if traffic violations cause harm to a vulnerable road user, in many cases the fines are doubled, and in some cases the motorist can be charged for a felony with punishment of up to six years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
In defining "vulnerable highway users," the bill includes groups such as cyclists, pedestrians, in-line skaters, and those driving motorcycles, emergency vehicles, and farm equipment.
Law enforcement’s opinion
In the community where Ferrito was killed, Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards said the bill requires additional support.
"Passing a law isn’t enough to prevent it, but it's a step in the right direction," Oak Creek Police Chief John Edwards said. "There needs to be along with it an educational portion to get the information out. I think if we can enforce what's out there and not let things slide we can help educate everybody."
Many local police administrators said they worry about how creeping distractions — talking, texting and eating while driving — are compounded by a growing number of cyclists on the road.
"It really hasn’t been a factor in our city, however there is a possibility that it could occur," Greenfield Police Assistant Chief Paul Schlecht said, referring to accidents with vulnerable road users. "There’s getting to be more and more bicyclists out there every year. I think there’s just so much more for a driver to divert their attention to that they maybe just don’t see the bicyclist."
Shorewood Police Chief David Banaszynski shared that concern, and said he supports the proposed bill.
"I believe that drivers need to be more aware that in this day and age, the road is being shared with a lot of people, and they need to keep their eyes open for it," Banaszynski said.
However, some were skeptical that increasing punishments would effectively prevent accidents from occurring.
"I don’t think it would deter as much as people think; I think it would serve more as a punishment," Greendale Lieut. Jeff Zainer said.
Zainer said he supports the bill, but doesn't see it having a significant impact in Greendale, where he said accidents are down to historic lows. Zainer said about 20 percent of accidents in Greendale occur at Southridge Mall, where he said police have been able to improve safety by enforcing speed and stop sign violations.
Menomonee Falls Capt. Mark Waters also said he didn't think his community would be much affected, as it already has success with enforcing existing laws.
"When we do enforcement, we’re trying to change driver behavior and get voluntary compliance with drivers, and often we see that penalties don’t change driver behavior," Waters said. "Our drivers are aware of their surroundings and we have a good environment here in the Falls."
Schlabowski said if the bill passes, the federation will continue its emphasis on education for both cyclists and motorists.
"Last year we taught 18,000 people how to ride legally and safely," Schlabowski said. "Our message to share and be aware."