Negligent driving bill won’t pass this session

Negligent driving bill won’t pass this session

“Split second motor vehicle responses should not lead to a felony.”
— Eric Deitrick, legislative rep for Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association

A bill that would have increased the consequences for people whose negligent driving resulted in a serious injury of a vulnerable road user has ran out of time.

After sailing through the Senate Judiciary committee on a 4-1 vote, SB 1553-B easily passed the full Oregon Senate on February 26th. The bill was lining up support and was expected to do well in the Oregon House, but then Salem politics got in the way. We confirmed this morning that with just a few days left in the shortened legislative session, the bill is stuck in committee and it won’t move forward.

The concept for this bill came from the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office. It was inspired by Alistair Corkett, the man who had his leg ripped off while riding his bicycle back in May because a man made a dangerous left turn in front of him. If Corkett had died, the driver could have been charged under Oregon’s existing “criminally negligent homicide” law. But because Corkett lived, the DA was left with limited options and ultimately declined to prosecute.

In addition to bicycle riders, the bill would have been triggered for other road users such as walkers, people using wheelchairs, construction workers, someone driving a farm tractor, a police officer or motor vehicle driver standing on the side of the road, and so on.

The bill was championed by Senator Floyd Prozanski and it garnered support from the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs, lawyer Ray Thomas, the Oregon Building Trades Council (whose 25,000 members often work on road projects), the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (who felt it fit within a Vision Zero policy), and other groups.





The only group that publicly opposed the bill was the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. In a letter (PDF) to the House Committee on Rules (where it ended up, much to the chagrin of supporters) on February 28th, the OCDLA wrote that, “Split second motor vehicle responses should not lead to a felony.”

corkett-salem-320x189

Alistair Corkett’s mom Julia Corkett testified
in support of the bill at the state capitol last month.

While the bill had solid momentum after passage in the Senate and would have likely had enough votes to pass the House, the crazy partisan politics that have been going on in the past few weeks in Salem helped take the wind out of its sails.

But Jeffrey Rhoades, a legislative liaison for the district attorney’s office, said there were other strong political forces that conspired to kill the bill.

The first problem was that the bill ended up in the House Rules Committee instead of the House Judiciary Committee. “That was not a good thing,” Rhoades said. He expected it to be assigned to Judiciary and had spent several days meeting with members of that committee to build support.

Rhoades also said the Rules committee assignment was a death knell for the bill because its leaders are not political allies of Senator Prozanski and two members of the committee are civil defense attorneys, “who make their living defending distracted driving cases.” “In their mind,” Rhoades continued, “this bill just criminalizes distracted driving.”

There were also forces in silent opposition to the bill: Rhoades said both AAA Oregon/Idaho and the Oregon Trucking Association lobbied against it but did not make their opposition public (by posting testimony to the bill’s status page). The Trucking Association, Rhoades said, was lobbying “pretty heavily” against the bill because they worried their members would be turned into felons. AAA had similar concerns.

Rhoades tried to explain to both the trucking and AAA lobbyists that their organizations’ members could become victims of negligent driving (when standing on the side of a highway during a breakdown, for instance), but they were not persuaded.

AAA Oregon/Idaho Government and Public Affairs Director Marie Dodds downplayed her group’s role in the bill’s demise. Dodds, who’s also a member of the City of Portland’s Vision Zero Task Force, said in an interview this morning that, “Certainly we would not oppose the general spirit of this bill.” “But sometimes,” she continued, “When you dig into the nuts and bolts and the fine print, things can change.”

Dodds claimed she was “not familiar with the fine print” of SB 1553 and wasn’t privvy to its status because their hired lobbyist handles the day-to-day work on bills. But she also said that their lobbyist “doesn’t act without our blessing on these things.” While Dodds said the bill “was not hugely on our radar,” she also said “I don’t think we looked at this bill as having a realistic chance of passing so we didn’t spend a lot of time or resources on it.”

When I asked to talk directly to AAA’s lobbyist to figure out the full story, Dodds said he can’t talk to the media. I also reached out to the Oregon Trucking Association for comment but have yet to hear back.

For Rhoades, the fate of SB 1553 is disappointing. He knew it would be difficult to pass a new legal concept (especially one that creates a crime) in a shortened session. “Then again, we had a lot more support than we originally antcipated. For a little while there it looked like we were pretty good,” he said. “But politics were at play in the end.”

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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