Last month, members of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin lobbied the Legislature to enact a vulnerable user law in the state.
The law would give prosecutors a better option for prosecuting motorists whose actions kill bicyclists and others, including roadway workers and those on motorcycles.
An acquittal Thursday in the case of Robert Perkins, killed while riding his motorcycle on Highway 45 on June 27, 2009, illustrates the gap in the current statutes.
A jury found the offending driver, Centurie Baertlein, not guilty of homicide by negligent operation of a vehicle, although she admitted she swerved across two lanes of traffic and hit Perkins riding northbound near Mayfair Rd. According to the story, Baertlein and her husband were arguing at the time.
To win a conviction on the felony charge, which carries a 10-year sentence, prosecutors had to prove that Baertlein was aware she was creating an unreasonable and substantial risk.
That threshold has been a roadblock to criminal prosecution in several cases involving deaths of cyclists. Instead, the motorists received traffic citations and fines of roughly $150 to $200, even though their actions caused a death.
A vulnerable user law would provide a middle ground between the felony and the traffic ticket in cases where a driving offense kills a vulnerable user on the road. (In Delaware the list includes pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, those on roller skates or in line skates, scooters, mo-peds, motorcycles, farm tractors or similar farm vehicles and those riding on animals).
In other states, the penalties have varied but include some jail or prison time, fines of roughly $1,000 and required traffic school.
Marcella DePeters, the defense attorney who represented Baertlein, made the point in trial that her client was not doing anything to consciously distract herself or engage in dangerous driving.
She also wasn't doing what she should have been: driving safely and watching out for others.