Rules of the Road

Negligent driver? Vulnerable road user? Combination spells bad news for violator

A car stops while a pedestrian crosses North State Street at East Maple Street, in Bellingham.
A car stops while a pedestrian crosses North State Street at East Maple Street, in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald file

Last week I mentioned a law designed to protect vulnerable road users: Negligent driving – Second degree – Vulnerable user victim. A mouthful, I know. The title of the law also brings up two important questions: What is negligence? And what is a vulnerable user?

Let’s start with negligence. If you act in a way that creates a potential risk, and pretty much every other human recognizes that it’s a risk, but you’re oblivious to the risk, that’s negligence. It is, according to traffic law, a “failure to exercise ordinary care.” When we look at negligent driving in Washington state traffic laws, there is an additional component: Negligent driving requires that a person “operate a motor vehicle in a manner that is both negligent” (that seems obvious given the topic) “and endangers or is likely to endanger any person.”

You’ll find that language in all three variations of the negligent driving laws.

Negligent driving – First degree (“neg first” in cop lingo) occurs when a driver meets the above description and is also demonstrating evidence of consuming alcohol or other drugs. Neg first is a misdemeanor. Sometimes when a person is arrested for DUI, the defense attorney will work to get the charges reduced to a neg first. While still a crime, the offense doesn’t carry the same mandatory penalties of a DUI.

Negligent driving – Second degree (“neg second” which you already guessed) is like neg first without the alcohol or drugs. Also, it’s an infraction rather than a misdemeanor and has a $550 fine.

Negligent driving – Second degree – Vulnerable user victim is an enhancement of neg second that creates substantial penalties if a driver is guilty of negligent driving and causes death or serious injury to a “vulnerable user of a public way”.

This seems like a good time to figure out what makes someone a vulnerable user. According to the law, this category includes:

▪ a pedestrian;

▪ a person riding an animal;

▪ a person driving a tractor that doesn’t have an enclosed cab;

▪ a cyclist;

▪ a person riding an electric-assisted bicycle;

▪ a person operating a personal assistive mobility device (power wheelchairs and Segways);

▪ a moped rider;

▪ a person riding a motor-driven cycle;

▪ a person on a motorized foot scooter;

▪ a motorcyclist.

Let me simplify that list for you. If you’re on the road, and you’re not protected by a metal cage, you’re a vulnerable road user.

Like neg second, this is an infraction rather than a misdemeanor, but penalties are much greater. The vulnerable user victim enhancement has a $5,000 fine and a suspension of driving privileges for up to 90 days.

This version of the negligent driving law has only been around for five years, and I think it may signal a shifting attitude toward road users and traffic safety. This law puts the burden of responsibility on the road users that have the potential to cause the greatest harm. It doesn’t exempt vulnerable road users from their responsibility to follow traffic laws and exercise caution, but it acknowledges, to quote Spider-Man’s uncle, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

Can a law really change attitudes and values? I can think of a couple that have. As impaired driving laws got tougher, cultural attitudes toward drunk driving shifted and DUI-involved fatalities went down; when wearing seat belts became mandatory, many drivers changed their behavior and more people survived serious crashes.

If we want to stop traffic fatalities, we all need to be responsible road users. As drivers, let’s set the example of caring for our vulnerable road user neighbors.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.