nebraska

Nebraska Needs Stiffer Penalties for Drivers Who Injure Cyclists

$100 Fine for Careless Driving Lets Drivers Off Easy 

A driver’s poor decisions and careless driving could have cost Gary Little his life. It could have left a wife without her husband and children without their father. Gary came within inches of dying because a 17-year old driver “decided to get high and drive a 4,000-pound instrument of death,” he says.

It was the night of August 18, 2018, in Lincoln, Nebraska, when the driver of an SUV crashed into him. He was riding south on a bike path around 10:00 pm when the driver going northbound turned into him as he was crossing the intersection. Gary was wearing a helmet and using properly working lights. It was dark, but street lights lit up the area. 

A witness, who was also driving north, stated that the driver of the SUV pulled out in front of her from a parking lot with no turn signals and was inches away from hitting the witness’ car. The driver sped out of the parking lot and turned right onto the next road at about 40 mph with no turn signals. The witness also explained that the SUV traveled so fast that it drifted around the corner. 

Gary was not able to stop quickly enough. He was thrown to the side of the road and landed in the grass after colliding with the SUV. He was unconscious and not moving.

According to the witness, the SUV stopped, and the driver got out and started screaming. She then got back into her car and tried to leave. By this time, the witness and others, who had gathered at the scene, stood in front of the SUV to block the driver from taking off. 

The driver called someone, and another female arrived a few minutes later. She started going through the SUV and grabbing things. She then attempted to run away from the scene. By this time, the police had arrived. The witness yelled at police officers to chase the other female down. When police caught up to her, they found marijuana in her possession.  The witness stated that the SUV driver moved very slowly, appeared intoxicated, and seemed not to know what was going on. 

The witness checked Gary’s pulse. He woke up about four minutes later and was not aware of what had happened. He was taken to the hospital by ambulance.

Gary’s injuries required surgery for a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.  Both knees had deep bruising, and he had abrasions to his forehead. 

He went through three months of physical therapy and could not ride his bike for six months.  Now for someone who has been riding bikes for over 45 years, commutes by bike every day, and is a competitive gravel racer, not being able to ride his bike was tough for Gary. His recovery is ongoing, but he says it feels great to be back on his bike!

Citation: Negligent Driving, amended to Careless Driving and Possession of Drug Paraphernalia and Marijuana.

Fines/Penalties:  Total - $149.00. $100 fine plus $49 in court costs for the traffic violation. The driver was assessed four points against her license. 

We reached out to a local DA in Nebraska to help us understand why the driver was not punished more severely. 

First, Nebraska currently does not have any vulnerable road user (VRU) laws on the books.

Second, in this case, the police officer cited the driver for negligent driving. “If a ticket is issued, the cop decides what offense they believe has been committed.  Whatever they put on a ticket is just a recommendation to us. We might disagree and not charge anything, we might add charges, we might charge a less serious offense, or we might charge a more serious offense,” explains the local DA.  

 Rather than going to the City Attorney’s Office, the ticket went to the County Attorney’s Office.  According to the DA, there is no negligent driving charge under state laws. Instead, there is a careless driving charge (Nebraska Revised Statute 60-6, 212), which is the exact same thing except that a careless driving offense adds four points to the driver’s record compared to three points for negligent driving. This is the reason the ticket was amended from negligent driving to careless driving.

 Careless driving under Nebraska law is a traffic infraction rather than a misdemeanor. The maximum fine for a first offense is $100. A second offense within a year can cost up to $200, while a third offense would be $300. The Nebraska Supreme Court has set the waiver fine schedule for any fines that are not set by statute. 

 The DA explained that after the charging decision is made, it gets filed with the court.  He goes on to say that not everyone who gets a ticket must go to court. Most low-level traffic offenses, such as speeding, failure to yield, and expired registration, are given the option of paying by waiver and skipping court. A defendant can still have a trial by telling the clerk that they wish to have their case set for trial.

 However, most people who get a traffic ticket never appear in court.  Once the ticket is signed, no one in the County Attorney’s Office will look at it again unless it is being contested.  

 “In this case, careless driving is a waiver eligible offense.  The fine was preset at $100, and the defendant opted to pay the fine rather than have a trial,” says the DA. The driver was assessed four points against her license. The points are all set out by a schedule in the statutes, so neither the judge nor the prosecutor really have any control over how many points a person gets on their license. The judge can’t revoke a license for a careless driving charge, and the maximum penalty is already being imposed.

 The next step up from careless driving would be reckless driving which requires an element of intent behind operating a vehicle poorly.  “In this case, there was no intentional bad driving, she should have seen Gary but just didn’t,” says the DA. For reckless driving, you usually are looking for speed, location (highway v. residential), weaving, unsafe passing, violating traffic control devices, etc.  Failing to see someone would not rise to the level of reckless driving.

 “The example I often give is if you have someone cleaning a loaded gun and it goes off and hits someone, that would be negligent.  Yes, they shouldn’t have been cleaning a loaded gun, but there was never any intention of putting someone at risk. Compared to a situation where someone is trying to scare a group of people and intends to fire a shot over their heads but accidentally hits someone instead.  There they had the intent to discharge the gun, might not have intended the result, but intended the action. That would be reckless,” says the DA.  

 People often want to draw a distinction between someone who fails to yield and causes serious bodily injury, and a crash that involves property damage.  “As the law sits now, there are no distinctions in the law, all cases where someone fails to yield are treated the same regardless of the outcome (excluding death),” he says.

 This begs the question if the law should treat the situations as different?  Do you punish someone more severely for negligent driving if someone is hurt? Are they any more negligent than someone who wrecks a car? Gary would most likely argue for more severe punishment after what he has been through!

 If you are a VRU in Nebraska, whether a cyclist, pedestrian, scooter rider, road construction worker, etc. and would like to see drivers face harsher penalties for negligent or careless driving, consider one of the following: 

Nebraska's 3-Foot Law and Why It Matters ...

On July 20, 2016, at around 6:00 am, Jeff was riding his bike on Highway 30 near Sidney, Nebraska.  An avid cyclist and racer, Jeff was familiar with this highway, and he rode it regularly.  He had a red, rear-facing blinky light on his bike.  Jeff is 49, married, and has two sons in their early 20s.  Jeff has been mountain biking since 1988, road cycling since 1999, and began road racing in 2002.  He grew up racing motocross and riding freestyle BMX.  Needless to say, Jeff can handle his bike, and he’s a savvy rider. 

Unbeknownst to Jeff, a semitrailer was approaching him from behind. Although Nebraska has a 3-foot law, the driver did not move over 3 feet, and instead, struck Jeff from behind. 

Local news covered the story (click HERE).  Note the use of the word "accident" and "clipped." This type of reporting is the kind that minimizes these collisions (which are avoidable) and the injuries sustained.  In a crit you "clip" a pedal. But a semi-truck hitting a cyclist?  That's a crash...But, I digress. 

Jeff recalls that moment:  “… I was exploded off of my bike and went rolling through the ditch - I remained conscious through the entire accident. As soon as I was hit, I knew I'd been hit by a vehicle but I did not know what type of vehicle had hit me. I vaguely remember a vehicle coming up behind me; however, I do know that I was riding very close to the white line when I was hit.

Jeff knew immediately his left arm was broken.  A witness stopped and assisted Jeff; the witness happened to be an EMT from Denver and was able to stabilize Jeff’s arm.  EMS arrived, as did the local sheriff’s office. 

The semi-driver, David McKnight, eventually walked over to Jeff.  Jeff recalls, “I remember him saying, "All I did was look down for a second. I'm so sorry."”  At the time, Jeff’s left cycling shoe was nowhere near him, nor was his bike. (His Strava data showed the bike was moved several feet in the ditch post-collision, which was odd).

Jeff was transported by ambulance to the ER in Sidney, and then transferred to the ER in Scottsbluff, NE.  His injuries included: 

•   Mid-shaft fracture of left humerus (upper arm)

•   Muscle atrophy of left long-head bicep

•   S.L.A.P. tear of labrum in left shoulder

•   Deep laceration above left elbow

•   Hairline fracture and sprained right ankle

•   Severe bruising of left hip/leg

•   Deeply bruised left calf/DVT (blood clot)

•   Abrasions on lower back

•   Cuts on head

Mr. McKnight, the semi-driver, works as a commercial driver.  At the time, he was driving for Cash Wa Distributing.  As part of our research and investigation in every case, we pull the at-fault driver’s DMV record.  Imagine our surprise to find this commercial driver, employed to DRIVE LARGE VEHICLES ON PUBLIC ROADWAYS, had an extensive driving violation history.  These infractions include: Improper Passing, Driving on Curb/Sidewalk/Shoulder, Driving during revocation, refusing alcohol test, driving under influence (1st), and driving during suspension (x2) between 1996 and 2016. 

In his traffic/criminal case, Mr. McKnight had to decide whether to plead guilty or not-guilty to the charges filed against him for hitting Jeff.  Mr. McKnight indicated that while he wanted to accept responsibility for his actions, he could not plead guilty because it might impact his employment as a commercial driver (!!).  He was permitted to enter a plea of no contest - in which he accepted the sentence but did not have to say “guilty” on the record.  

As you can see from Jeff’s statement at the hearing, this collision impacted his life and his body tremendously.  Although McKnight seemed remorseful, his actions did not align with his words.  He was charged with driving on shoulder and failure to give a cyclist 3-feet(and fined $25 for each of those charges-which his employer paid).  He also received probation for 12 months to pay restitution, and to take an attitudinal awareness driving course.  It would seem he got off with a slight slap on the wrist.  His restitution remained unpaid until his company’s commercial insurer ultimately paid it.  His company also paid his costs and fines associated with the traffic case. 

Cash Wa Distributing’s insurer, Cincinnati Insurance, the company with whom we reached a settlement on Jeff's behalf, attempted to insert a confidentiality clause in the release that Jeff signed as a condition of the settlement agreement we reached with them.  We refused- because we wanted to let the public know that Cash Wa keeps drivers like McKnight on their books, pays their traffic fines, costs, and their civil case settlements, and despite having extensive driving histories -- continues to employ drivers who hit cyclists on the roadways. 

Enough of that...let’s talk about Jeff.  Jeff invested his time and energy in showing up to every hearing in this case.  He worked SO hard in PT and rehab to get back to being fit and race-ready.  Jeff preached positivity, gratitude and optimism the entire time, start to finish.  He consistently demonstrated grit and resolve. And let me tell you now, just how proud I am of Jeff and his involvement in the traffic case.   When he could easily have blown it off and not gotten involved, he stayed involved and remained involved until the case was fully finished.  I hope you are as inspired by his actions as I am.  I hope if you ever have occasion to show up in a situation, that you do-- because it matters. 

I asked Jeff, now that he can speak publicly about this ordeal, what he would share with other cyclists – what advice would he give, what words of wisdom would he share?  

“My advice to other cyclists is, don’t read my story and quit doing something you are passionate about. I could not wait to get back on my bicycle. It took countless hours of physical therapy, and I now cherish every moment I can be out on the road. Always think: safety first. See and be seen! I now ride with a rear facing red light that has a built in camera that records all of my rides. I wish I had the camera the morning I was hit as the footage would have provided evidence that could have sped up the criminal part of this case. If you are ever involved in a motor vehicle/bicycle crash, DO NOT talk to the driver’s insurance company if they call you. I was contacted two days after my crash while I was on major pain meds. The adjuster was kind and assured me that once I completed treatment, they would reimburse me for all my expenses. Months later, the adjuster twisted words that I had said and tried using them against me in settling property damages. They record those calls, and they are not on your side. You are not required to give them a statement. Do not try to navigate the insurance waters on your own as they are a turbulent nightmare. Hire an attorney like Megan Hottman who specializes in cycling-related cases and can take on that burden for you. That morning in July could have turned out worse...I could have been killed! But God was looking out for me, and He still has me here for a purpose, and I am so thankful for that.”

Photo Sep 05, 1 44 52 PM.jpg

A note of thanks to Cheyenne County District Attorney, Jonathon Stellar, who kept us involved and informed as the entire criminal case unfolded.  We greatly appreciate District Attorneys and City Attorneys who let us have meaningful roles in those cases and who give our clients a chance to speak their minds in Court at sentencing hearings.  It really, really matters.  

Jeff is now working with Nebraska law makers to assist them in spreading the message about why their 3-foot law matters, and needs more enforcement.  The law became effective in 2012.  See Nebraska Revised Statute 60-6,133.

Jeff mentions a rear-facing camera with red light in his comments above- I use the same, it's a Cycliq, and it recently captured footage just like this.  I recommend cyclists use them whenever possible: