Felony charge proposed for hitting cyclists

Stiffer penalties for motorists who kill or injure bicyclists and pedestrians were proposed by a bill heard by the Judiciary Committee Jan. 28.

Introduced by Omaha Sen. Rick Kolowski, LB38 would make the offense of killing or injuring vulnerable road users a Class IV felony, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment and a $10,000 fine. Current statute classifies motor vehicle homicide as a Class I misdemeanor.

The bill defines vulnerable road users as pedestrians, highway workers, bicyclists, tractors, mopeds, motorcycles, horse-drawn carriages, motorized chairs, wheelchairs and people riding animals.

The bill also would require that courts sentence offenders to at least 200 hours of community service and revoke their driver’s licenses for between six months and 15 years.

Kolowski said the bill is especially meaningful to him because his friend and former colleague, Jim Johnston, was killed while cycling last year.

“This bill is not about giving bicyclists the right to do anything they want on the road,” he said. “We just want to have a safe environment for all who ride or drive on our roads.”

David Rowe, representing the Nebraska Bicycling Alliance, testified in favor of the bill. He said the current law does not adequately punish drivers who injure or kill cyclists.

James Blue, president of Cedars Youth Services, also spoke in favor the bill, saying that he suffered a concussion and broken ribs when he was struck by a motorist while cycling. The bill would serve as a “building block” in helping change drivers’ aggressive behavior, he said.

Thomas Strigenz of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association testified in opposition to the bill. Felony offenses stay on offenders’ records for a lifetime, Strigenz said, and courts should have the flexibility to assess penalties that correspond to the level of recklessness of the crimes.

“This conduct should not be a felony charge,” he said, adding that a careless accident should not be treated the same as willful recklessness.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

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