As the new state legislative session opens, there is a bill Alaska’s bikers and walkers should follow. Rep. Andy Josephson, D-Anchorage, has introduced a bill that enhances penalties for reckless driving as a way to increase driver awareness of pedestrians and bicyclists. The bill, HB7, establishes a new charge of reckless driving in the first degree and provides punishment as a class C felony.
While not named as such, this is one of Alaska’s first attempts to pass what’s known as a vulnerable roadway user law, which offers protection through increased driver penalties to pedestrians, cyclists, wheelchair users, construction workers, and others who may be in a roadway for legitimate reasons. In recent years Oregon, Delaware, New York and Washington have passed vulnerable user laws, which are common throughout northern Europe.
“Reckless driving is commonly a fairly insignificant misdemeanor,” Rep. Josephson said in a press release. “Once this legislation is approved and implemented, there would be a more aggravated reckless driving penalty that would give prosecutors options when charging someone who has injured or killed a biker or walker.”
Last year was a tough year to be a pedestrian in Alaska, as there were 13 deaths statewide due to vehicle-pedestrian collisions — 14 if you count a man in Kake who was involved in a hit-and-run incident in November but didn’t die until Christmas Eve (this incident wasn’t in the statewide stats because it’s still under investigation). There also were three deaths in vehicle-bicycle collisions in 2014. Alaska has the highest percentage of people who walk to work in the nation (8.0 percent compared to 2.8 percent), but we also rank third in pedestrian fatalities, according to this report.
Rep. Josephson noted the recent deaths in the sponsor statement for HB7:
House Bill 7: Pedestrian Safety Bill
House Bill 7 aims to increase driver awareness of pedestrians and bicyclists through enhanced penalties for reckless driving. HB7 would establish a new reckless driving in the first degree and provide for punishment as a class C felony. While vehicle-on-person offenses can presently be charged as felony assaults, this new crime would allow for alternative elements reflecting the criminal act. This would give discretion to prosecutors as to how and what to charge for the offense at issue.
There were 65 fatal traffic crashes in Alaska in 2014 that resulted in 70 fatalities (some crashes resulted in multiple deaths). There were 13 pedestrian fatalities and three bicyclist fatalities, which makes up 22.9% of all traffic fatalities last year. Since 2010, there have been 50 pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities making up 16.2% of all fatal traffic crashes.
Current statutes on reckless driving will serve as the foundation for reckless driving in the second degree, while reckless driving in the first degree will be a new crime. A person will commit the crime of reckless driving in the first degree if they are guilty of reckless driving and, as a result, a pedestrian or bicyclist suffers physical injuries.
As the state continues to grow, pedestrian and bicyclist presence will only increase, which could lead to an increase in fatalities amongst these groups. Added to this is an increase in walkability and bikeability, spawned by both a desire for physical fitness and a reduction of our carbon footprint. By increasing the penalties for dangerous practices behind the wheel, drivers will have to become more aware of their surroundings, leading to an overall increase in safe driving.
I invite you to discuss this issue with me further and urge you to support this legislation.
A recent story from Anchorage shows why HB7 is needed. Even though a driver tested positive for marijuana, cocaine and heroin, prosecutors chose not to charge her with vehicular homicide because the man she killed had a blood-alcohol level more than five times the legal limit. Instead, she is only being charged with operating under the influence, having a suspended license, and no insurance.
In another case in 2014, a driver who hit and killed a bicyclist wasn’t charged at all, even though his blood test showed he’d smoked pot that day and he was speeding. Walking and biking in Alaska can be dangerous, and, as one columnist writing about this incident wrote, “You need to treat motor vehicles like they’re trying to kill you, because if you don’t, they just might.”
In this age of distracted driving (put away your cellphones) HB7 might be what it takes to make drivers slow down and pay attention to the road.