Today the 2020 Legislative Session was convened by the Florida Legislature and there will be another attempt at passing protections for vulnerable road users (VRU). After the success in passing a ban on handheld devices in school and work zones and texting while driving, there’s hope that more can be done this year.
I wrote about Florida’s attempt during last year’s legislative session here. Two identical bills were filed in the House and Senate last year but didn’t get very far out of committee. This year House Bill 455 and Senate Bill 308 were filed in their respective chamber by the same legislators as last year, Representative Stan McClain and Senator Dennis Baxley, respectively.
HB 455 is identical to the HB 71 that Rep. McClain filed last year. Sen. Baxley’s bill differs slightly from SB 158 that he filed last year in that he only references the definition of a VRU, rather than provide a definition the prospective new statute.
So, if passed, what would this new law do? The new law would provide criminal penalties for drivers who seriously injure or kill VRU while committing a traffic moving violation.
Who is a ‘Vulnerable Road User’?
HB 455 again provides a long list of who is a VRU that includes pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, people on scooters or mopeds, and those riding an animal. The bills further provide that a VRU can also be someone on a skateboard, roller skates, or a wheelchair (electric or not) while on a public right of way, crosswalk or shoulder of a roadway. SB 308, on the other hand, references section 316.027(1)(b) of the Florida Statutes in defining who a VRU is, which is basically the same definition provided in HB 455. It’s just a trimmed down version from last year’s bill.
What would it criminalize?
First things first, the bills would provide criminal penalties for traffic moving violations. Some examples of moving violations are speeding, running red lights and stop signs, unsafe passing, failure to obey traffic signals, careless driving, improper lane change, and failure to yield. Unfortunately, it won’t include the new Florida Ban on Texting while Driving Law, because an initial offense is only punishable as a nonmoving traffic violation. Only multiple violations within 5 years would rise to the level of a moving violation, which is a shame. It only takes one time for someone to text while driving and destroy the lives of many. Hopefully this can get addressed during this session.
A violation of the ban on using handheld cell phone devices in school and work zones is a moving traffic violation and would apply if a driver violated the VRU law.
What would be the penalties?
The bills categorize the new penalties between causing serious bodily injury and death. Serious bodily injury under Florida law is defined as an “injury to any person…which consists of a physical condition that creates a substantial risk of death, serious personal disfigurement, or protracted loss or impairment of the function of any bodily member or organ.”
If a driver commits a moving violation and causes serious bodily injury to a VRU, that driver would be committing a 2nd degree misdemeanor, which can carry a jail sentence of up to 60 days and 6 months of probation. The bills would also add a minimum $1,500 fine, a minimum 30 days on house arrest, require a driver improvement course, and at least a 30-day revocation of the driver’s license.
If a driver commits a moving violation and causes the death of a VRU, that driver would be committing a 1st degree misdemeanor, which can carry a jail sentence up to 1 year in jail and/or probation. The bills would also add a minimum $5,000 fine, minimum 180 days on house arrest, require a driver improvement course, and at least a 1-year revocation of the driver’s license.
Now that Florida has finally addressed texting while driving, these bills are a serious second step in adding protections for VRUs, which haven’t previously existed in Florida. At present, it appears only 5 states have strong VRU laws, and Florida may be added as the sixth. For a state that lags behind the rest of the nation in protecting pedestrians, cyclists, and other VRUs, it’s critical that bills like these become law. There are loopholes and issues that need to be addressed, especially since the text ban wouldn’t apply, but progress is still progress. Pedestrians and bicyclists and all of us who are vulnerable road users must reach out to our elected leaders and make sure these protections finally come to fruition in Florida.