Under the Radar

Editor's note: There were 115 bills signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019. That’s just a fraction of the more than 2,800 bills introduced in the state House or Senate this legislative session. This ongoing series explores some of the proposals circulating at the Capitol that haven’t gotten much attention elsewhere.

HARRISBURG — Legislation that passed the state House would call for stiffer penalties for careless driving that injures “vulnerable” highway users, like pedestrians, bicyclists and those riding in horse-and-buggies.

“Pennsylvania’s highways have a high percentage of users who are not riding in vehicles that serve as steel cages with air bags and seat belts,” said state Rep. Brett Miller, R-Lancaster County, the author of the legislation. “We’ve all seen reports of the horrific tragedies that can result when these people are hit by a careless driver who is operating what is essentially a 4,000-pound projectile.”

House Bill 1536 passed by a vote of 191-4. Under the proposal, a motorist convicted of careless driving that resulted in the death of a vulnerable highway user would face a one-year driver’s license suspension and up to $5,000 in fines. A motorist convicted of careless driving that seriously injured a vulnerable highway user would face a six-month license suspension and up to $2,500 in fines.

Miller said the legislation was inspired by the suggestion of a constituent who is a bicycle rider. But, as a lawmaker in Lancaster County, Miller said he also appreciates the need to better protect members of the Amish community who travel by horse-and-buggy.

There were 65 crashes in 2018 reported to police involving those traveling by horse-and-buggy in Pennsylvania, said Alexis Campbell, a Department of Transportation spokeswoman. Those crashes included two fatalities – one occupant of a horse-and-buggy and one motorcyclist who collided with a horse-and-buggy, she said.

Similar bills have been passed in at least a dozen states in recent years, though who’s considered a vulnerable user “varies widely depending on the state,” according to the National Center for State Courts.

For instance, Hawaii’s vulnerable highway user bill doesn’t include those riding animals. Delaware, Utah, Oregon and Washington include those traveling in farm vehicles.

Miller’s legislation originally included those traveling in farm vehicles, he said. Those traveling in farm vehicles were removed from the legislation, largely due to the difficulty in determining how to define what kind of farm vehicles should be included, he said. Some farm vehicles are so large that if there was a collision with a passenger car, the driver in the car would be the vulnerable highway user, he said.

There were 88 crashes involving farm vehicles, including eight fatalities in 2018, Campbell said. Five of the people killed in accidents with farm vehicles were in the vehicles that collided with the farm vehicles, she said. Two of the three people killed while traveling in farm vehicles were in single-vehicle crashes, she said.

Miller said that if someone could figure out a way to amend the legislation to include farm vehicles, he’d be open to the change.

There is no other specific protection in traffic law that calls for increased penalties for careless driving that harms someone traveling on farm equipment, said Mark O’Neill, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau. But he said the farm bureau hasn’t been involved in lobbying in support of Miller’s legislation, O’Neill said.

Statewide data on pedestrians/bicyclists killed by vehicles in PA

Year Pedestrian crashes Pedestrian Fatalities Bike crashes Bike fatalities
2014 4001 166 1309 19
2015 4001 153 1272 16
2016 4201 172 1304 16
2017 4086 150 1141 21
2018 4129 201 974 18
Total 20,418 842 6000 90
Source: PennDOT

Pedestrians killed by vehicles (2014-2018)

County Pedestrians killed by vehicle
Cambria 6
Crawford 4
Lawrence 9
Mercer 5
Montour 0
Nortbumberland 6
Snyder 1
Somerset 3
Union 0
Venango 4
Warren 1
(Source: PennDOT)

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