Colorado drivers now face harsher penalties for injuring people walking and biking

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Governor Jared Polis signs the Vulnerable Road User Bill, May 29, 2019. (David Sachs/Denverite)

The driver who paralyzed Douglas Howey in Aurora paid the government $171, absolving him as far as the law was concerned. The driver who degloved Adelaide Perr's face in Boulder maintained his freedoms, too.

Howey was walking with his kids. Perr was biking. The next time a driver seriously injures a pedestrian or bicyclist in Colorado, they can lose their right to drive for a year -- with exceptions -- thanks to a bill Gov. Jared Polis signed into law Wednesday.

Until now, drivers could hit people, injure them and keep their license. Hitting a person was no different than clipping a car's mirror in terms of license infractions. The "Vulnerable Road User Law" changes that.

"We want Colorado to be safe for people to get around and get where they want to go," Polis said. "Whether that means biking to work, whether it means walking to work, whether it means you need a wheelchair to get around, we need to make sure that we're a state that gives people those choices of how you get where you want to go."

The law creates the "vulnerable user" class of people and makes careless driving that results in their injury a misdemeanor. Judges can order drivers to pay the victim restitution as well, and force them to take driving classes and perform community service. Vulnerable users include wheelchair users, scooter riders, motorcyclists and even horse-drawn carriages and tractors, among other modes.

Howey said the law provides some assurance that fewer deadly drivers will be on the road, even though the damage is done and he'll never walk again.

"There was no justice," Howey said. "The guy that hit me walked away from the accident. He only paid $171 and that was given to the city, and I'm paralyzed for life."

The driver who nearly killed Perr stole her independence, she said. She used to bike everywhere, having sold her car to get around on two wheels. Not anymore. After she woke up from a five-day coma, she suddenly needed a car to get to doctor appointments. Aside from permanent disfigurement and other maladies, she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder that makes biking daunting.

"It was very difficult for me to lose my mode of transportation forever, and he got to keep his, even though he was at 100 percent at fault and he had this record proving that he was repeatedly negligent or careless," Perr said.

Russel Rosh, the man behind the wheel, had 17 prior traffic infractions and had caused four crashes.

Senator Mike Foote of Boulder County and Representative Dylan Roberts of Eagle and Routt Counties sponsored the bill. Bicycle Colorado was the advocacy force behind the bill.

Bicycle Colorado's policy director Piep van Heuven said the bill is the beginning, not the end, of legislation that protects people who aren't driving.

"It sets the precedent that there needs to be distinct penalties because of the severe damage -- physically, emotionally, financially -- that can be caused when careless driving results in any of these horrific human impacts."

Convicted drivers can apply for a restricted license for extenuating circumstances like driving family members to medical appointments.

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