The citation most commonly issued against the motorist in our clients' cases, is "careless driving causing injury."
This is a fairly broad, and vague, citation. Which is great, because it can function as a "catch-all," but it's also a challenging charge for District Attorneys and City Attorneys to prosecute and specifically, to take to a jury in a criminal trial. DAs report that Juries often struggle with a conviction in a careless driving case, because the jury can't find "fault" or "intent." They become dismissive of the incident as "just an accident," and will often return a not-guilty verdict. (I will note, that one DA I spoke with took just the opposite approach -he tried these cases all the time and in his words, won every single one where the police officer had done a thorough investigation. So some of this does come down to the individual DA's perspective/attitudes).
This is a concerning issue. For one thing -if a DA has uncertainty related to taking these charges to trial, they will likely offer a lesser charge/plea agreement to the driver. I've seen these offers range from a 1-point defective headlamp to a 2-point defective vehicle charge. Keep in mind -the careless charge is only a 4-point violation to begin with!
The reality is that even when the police officer does a fine job with the crash scene investigation and cites the driver with the best possible charge, (often left with no other choice but the careless causing injury charge), the DAs have no incentive NOT to offer a lesser charge plea AND this then limits the possible sentences the judge can impose.
Moral of the story: weak charge + DAs feeling apprehensive about taking the weak charge to trial = motorists cited for hitting a cyclist usually get a mere slap on the wrist, and may pay a minimal fine or be sentenced to minimal community service.
We need a new law. And -we are seeing the increased adoption of Vulnerable Road user laws by several states. I hope to see this happen in CO, and soon.
As summarized by the League of American Bicyclists, "Vulnerable Road User (VRU) Laws provide important legal protection to bicyclists and other persons who are not protected by steel cages. VRU laws operate on the principal of general deterrence - by providing an increased penalty for certain road behaviors that lead to the serious injury or death of certain road users people will be deterred from doing those behaviors around those users. The model law includes very strong punishments for people who seriously injure or kill bicyclists and other vulnerable road users."
This removes the problem I note above, of a jury struggling with "fault" or lack of a crime. It removes those issues entirely by defining cyclists as group of people in need of extra/special protection. It automatically increases the penalties if someone injures or kills a member of this protected class!
The League's website includes model VRU for states to follow:
INFLICTION OF SERIOUS INJURY OR DEATH TO VULNERABLE ROAD USERS
Section 1: As used herein, the term “vulnerable road user” includes:
(a) a pedestrian, including those persons actually engaged in work upon a highway, or in work upon utility facilities along a highway, or engaged in the provision of emergency services within the right-of-way; or
(b) a person riding or leading an animal; or
(c) a person lawfully operating or riding any of the following on a public right-of-way, crosswalk, or shoulder of the highway:
- A bicycle, tricycle, or other pedal-powered vehicles;
- A farm tractor or similar vehicle designed primarily for farm use;
- A skateboard;
- Roller skates;
- In-line skates;
- A scooter;
- A moped;
- A motorcycle;
- An animal-drawn wheeled vehicle, or farm equipment, or sled;
- An electric personal assistive mobility device; or
- A wheelchair.
A person who operates a motor vehicle in a careless or distracted manner or [commits an existing violation under state law] and causes serious physical injury or death to a vulnerable road user shall be guilty of infliction of serious physical injury or death to a vulnerable road user.
Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Oregon, Utah, Vermont, and Washington have VRU laws that define vulnerable road users, and provide specific processes/penalties for harm done to those users. The League has done a great job detailing those efforts in a chart here.
This gets us just a bit closer to the incredible strict liability laws that countries like Copenhagen have-where a motorist is presumed at fault anytime there is a car -bike collision. It shifts the perspectives of drivers, which in turn influences their driving behavior. If motorists in the US knew that, upon hitting a cyclist regardless of the facts, they the DRIVER would be presumed at fault, imagine how differently people would drive! Check it out here.