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Negligent driving bill won’t pass this session

Posted by on March 3rd, 2016 at 1:52 pm

“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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37 Comments
  • Adam H. March 3, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    Yes another disgraceful example of Republicans purposefully obstructing actual government activities. Disappointing that their petty squabbles got in the way of a bill that could have actually helped Oregonians.

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    • Alan Love March 3, 2016 at 2:03 pm

      Nothing in the article seemed to propose that this was a partisan (i.e. Republican) effort to kill a bill.

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      • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 3, 2016 at 2:06 pm

        Alan… What I referred to in the story and what I think Adam is referring to isn’t that Republicans specifically tried to kill SB 1553… but that the bill was a victim of the squabbling and tactics between the two parties that took precious time away from smaller bills like this that needed all the attention they could get in order to pass.

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        • Adam H. March 3, 2016 at 2:10 pm

          Yep, this exactly.

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      • Adam H. March 3, 2016 at 2:09 pm

        Perhaps not, but they were purposely obstructing other bills which directly resulted in this one not being heard by the House.

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    • wsbob March 8, 2016 at 12:11 pm

      Just getting to this story today. I think the obstacles to this bill passing into law, were far more complicated than petty party squabbling over other bills on the agenda, keeping this bill from getting more attention than it did.

      There apparently was a strong feeling that the bill would not effectively be able to distinguish bad drivers that had committed traffic offenses resulting in serious, tragic consequences, from good drivers having made a mistake in judgment that resulted in serious, tragic consequences. People want laws to help get bad drivers off the road, but they don’t want laws that will suck good drivers into the gears of criminal justice, for human error. Need a better written bill in order for it to pass into law.

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  • Anne Hawley
    Anne Hawley March 3, 2016 at 1:57 pm

    “In their mind,” Rhoades continued, “this bill just criminalizes distracted driving.”

    That was the whole damn point.

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    • El Biciclero March 3, 2016 at 3:41 pm

      This reminds me of a phrase we used to use when I was in grade school. I think it went, “no duh!”. Nowadays, I believe the kids say, “ya think?”

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    • John Lascurettes March 3, 2016 at 5:29 pm

      And really, isn’t already a criminal (infraction) act as defined by the Oregon Revised Statutes? This just solidifies and strengthens that. #facemeetspalm

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    • Spenzor March 4, 2016 at 3:19 pm

      IIRC there was not requirement to press changes either. In situations where guilt is questionable, it’s unlikely that the DA would move forward due to limited resources. So there’s absolutely no reason to oppose this bill. At least that’s what I concluded from prior coverage.

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    • wsbob March 8, 2016 at 12:28 pm

      “…That was the whole damn point.” hawley

      The point of the bill, was to reduce the occurrence of tragic consequences resulting from bad judgment used in operating a motor vehicle.

      Reviewing bikeportland stories written about the collision that took off Alistair Corkett’s leg, including references to and a few quotes, I believe, from the person driving the pickup that hit him, the person driving wasn’t distracted. Corkett and his riding partner thought they could see the driver looking at them through the pickup’s windshield, as they approached the intersection. Still, he decided to cross their path too late, leaving himself not enough distance from them to make the left turn without a collision. After the collision, a look at the record of the person driving, showed he had a record of bad driving.

      If the bill is ever to have a chance of passing in a future legislative session, it’s going to to have to do a better job of distinguishing people that drive badly, from those that drive well but that made a serious mistake in a momentary lapse of bad judgment.

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  • Chris March 3, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    I sent an email to AAA expressing my disappointment in their stance on this bill. I am a member of AAA and they are the underwriter for both my homeowners & auto policies. We shall see if I get a response.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 3, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      Chris. I’d be curious to see what response you get. Please share here or via email to me at jonathan@bikeportland.org if you can. Thanks.

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    • Chris I March 3, 2016 at 3:24 pm

      I suggest switching providers. Your money is paying for their lobbyist.

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      • paikiala March 3, 2016 at 4:22 pm

        I don’t insure vehicle or home through them, but their towing coverage is better than better world.

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        • B. Carfree March 3, 2016 at 7:45 pm

          Back when I drove a few times per year, I had AAA mostly for the towing. I also insured my vehicle through them. Then two things happened:
          1. When I told them about a particularly dangerous towing outfit they were contracting with, they basically told me they didn’t care. That crew has since killed multiple people locally.
          2. They never sent me a renewal notice for my insurance even though I had been insuring through them for about a decade.

          I dropped them promptly and am more pleased with that decision every day.

          Dropping them was a part of my family deciding not to keep an operational motor vehicle. Our new agent found a way to give us coverage for less than nothing. (Multi-policy discount is more than I pay for a policy that I can turn on and off for $1.50/day when I rent a car.)

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  • alankessler March 3, 2016 at 2:22 pm

    “Split second motor vehicle responses should not lead to [the death of a human being].” FTFY. Perhaps that’s the entire f*ing point. If you drive in such a way as to lead to a split-second life and death decision, you should be held accountable.

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    • Dan A March 3, 2016 at 2:42 pm

      Sorta like split-second actions with a loaded weapon.

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    • J_R March 3, 2016 at 3:10 pm

      Right. Like the split-second decision to drive to a bar, get drunk, drive away in an uninsured vehicle, and run someone down while texting. Just one split-second decision….

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    • El Biciclero March 3, 2016 at 3:43 pm

      Exactly. If your driving style forces you into “split-second” decisions, it needs to change. It almost seems the purpose of this bill was to incentivize making that change to a more careful driving style.

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  • Bjorn March 3, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    I stopped using AAA because of their Anti bike and Anti safety stances. I still wanted to maintain roadside assistance insurance so I investigated other options. In the end I went with Better World Club. I have had to use them a number of times and the response time seems to be same as AAA but my money no longer goes to lobbying against safety.

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    • J_R March 3, 2016 at 3:12 pm

      AAA’s opposition to the gas tax increase on the ballot about 20 years ago is why I refused to join.

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  • PNP March 3, 2016 at 2:55 pm

    Once again, politics undermines the health and safety of the citizens. And yes, split second decisions that take a life or cause permanent disability or serious injury should absolutely lead to a felony. I’d like to know why not?

    And by the way, it’s not “motor vehicles” making those decisions. It’s human beings who are distracted, or worried about getting somewhere, or who just think that faster is better. We need to stop talking about cars and trucks (and those damn SUVs) as if they’re independent beings.

    I hope the bill will be reintroduced.

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    • PNP March 4, 2016 at 9:06 am

      I just read an article where a woman in New York is being charged with a felony for driving with a homemade license plate on her car. A felony. And yet, here at home, driving so carelessly that someone is killed or maimed isn’t supposed to be a felony? I’d still like to know why not.

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  • Todd Hudson March 3, 2016 at 3:05 pm

    Not surprising it didn’t pass – first-time bills often stall in committee (and it didn’t help this sat in the wrong committee). This session was only 35 days, and leadership and those with seniority put things like minimum wage, marijuana, ending coal power ahead in terms of priority. There are always more bills than time to vote on all of them.

    Chances are it’ll be re-introduced in next year’s “long session” and it’ll stand a better chance at passage.

    I know there’s this knee-jerk response to blame Republicans, but if you stop to understand the details, that’s not really the case.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) March 3, 2016 at 3:14 pm

      I agree Todd. This is not about Republican vs. Democrat. Not at all. I really hope this gets introduced next session.

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    • m March 3, 2016 at 3:35 pm

      From the WW: “The short session, held for 35 days every other year, was designed for balancing the budget and making minor adjustments to state law.”

      To no one’s surprise, they couldn’t contain themselves. If the R’s were in charge, the D’s would likely be doing the same thing that the R’s are now during the short session. Personally, I would rather see a 3-4 month session every year instead of 35 days one year and 6 months the next.

      http://www.wweek.com/2016/02/03/your-guide-to-the-2016-oregon-legislature/

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  • Chris March 3, 2016 at 3:30 pm

    Marie Dodds won’t talk to the media because she knows how it works: http://www.bizjournals.com/portland/stories/2007/09/24/daily25.html?jst=b_ln_hl

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  • El Biciclero March 3, 2016 at 3:37 pm

    “Rhoades said both AAA Oregon/Idaho and the Oregon Trucking Association lobbied against it…”

    The All-Powerful Motor Lobby.

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  • bikeninja March 3, 2016 at 4:30 pm

    Perhaps the bike theives need a trade association so they can lobby to change the laws so that their members don’t become felons when they have a momentary weakness for a new mountain bike locked to a pole with a cable lock.

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    • Chris I March 4, 2016 at 7:49 am

      It’s a split-second decision.

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  • Chadwick F March 3, 2016 at 4:55 pm

    Hopefully it comes up again next session.
    Yay America! You (lobbyists) go girl!

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  • Dave March 3, 2016 at 7:42 pm

    Happy I’m not an Oregon resident–this shows a disgraceful disregard for human life. Confirms me in my bigotry as a cyclist that drivers are really, truly less than human much of the time.

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  • Tom Hardy March 3, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    I went to AAA for insurance for my first car for the towing insurance. They refused me because I told them I was also a cyclist. My dad had AAA and he canceled his policy. I have had Allstate for 20 years on the cars and the tow insurance response was great. Have not needed a tow for 22 years.

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  • Paul Wilkins March 4, 2016 at 9:51 am

    “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.”

    Is this the third or fourth lede? Everything about this is disturbing.

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  • Gary B March 4, 2016 at 9:59 am

    “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.”

    I understand your point, but this was NOT a new “legal concept.” It was criminal negligence, a well-established legal concept. In an ideal world criminal negligence resulting in injury (maybe serious injury) would be third-degree assault, period. Instead, we have a statute that requires various combinations of recklessness, reckless+extreme indifference, knowing/intent, use of weapons, injury, serious injury, and various protected classes.

    This would have added one more narrowly targeted crime. Yes, this would have been the first less-than-reckless category in our statute, but it’s definitely not a new concept.

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  • Russ R March 7, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    Huh. I had no idea AAA actively lobbied against such common-sense laws such as this.
    I sent them a letter expressing my displeasure at their actions/priorities.

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