“Due Care” law strengthens protections for Tennessee bicyclists, pedestrians

Authored By Mary Barnett

Lawmakers are calling for tougher enforcement from local law officials on regulating the behavior of Tennessee motor vehicle operators.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, and Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, introduced the revised Due Care law in Senate (SB1171) and House (HB1007), respectively, creating stiffer penalties for motor vehicle drivers who injure or kill a pedestrian or bicyclist.

“We’re trying to make sure rules of the road apply to everyone whether on a bicycle or in a vehicle,” Berke said in a prepared statement.

The new version of the law, effective July 1, will also “effectively remove opportunities for motor vehicle drivers to claim they do not see bicyclists, pedestrians, joggers and other non-motorized road users,” he said.

Outdoor Chattanooga’s bicycle coordinator, Philip Pugliese, said the new law is timely but is also only one step toward real change.

“The change in the Due Care law was needed to mitigate the defense of simply saying ‘Sorry, I did not see you.’  Our expectation as drivers has changed to the point where we are entitled to drive, speed, phone, text, eat or some combination of all of these, and yet not accept responsibility for striking an object in or adjacent to the roadway,” Pugliese said.

To effect proper change, Pugliese said engineering, education, encouragement and enforcement are all needed.

Tennessee recently failed in the infrastructure category of the League of American Bicyclists’ third annual Bicycle Friendly State rankings.

While the state’s overall ranking improved and jumped from 43 to 24, the failing grade is typical of most states, according to Pugliese.

“Unfortunately for Tennessee and many other states, federal funds that were rescinded disproportionately impacted bicycle and pedestrian programs over general highway projects,” Pugliese said. Infrastructure on a state level is also affected by the width of shoulders on state highways, the use of rumble strips and the presence of suitable bicycle facilities where appropriate.”

According to a 2011 report by Transportation for America, titled “Dangerous by Design,” Tennessee’s pedestrians are in continued danger until more communities “retrofit poorly designed roads to become ‘complete streets’ by adding sidewalks and bicycle lanes, reducing crossing distances and installing crosswalks to make walking and biking safer and more inviting for users of all ages and abilities.”

Pugliese said the city is now moving toward evaluating all road projects in the context of building complete streets and meeting the needs of all users, whether walking, cycling, driving a car or using transit.

The revised Due Care law will make it easier for those injured, or the survivors of those killed, to prevail in civil lawsuits.

“We talk a lot about multi-modal transportation, meaning everyone has the opportunity to travel by foot, bicycle or car,” Berke said.

Berke said that it will now be clear people are expected to “exercise proper driving restraint” around cyclists and pedestrians.

Breaking the Due Care law is now a Class A misdemeanor, upgraded from a Class C.

Penalties for failure to exercise due care now include up to a $500 fine, 11 months and 29 days in jail and a loss of drivers license for one year for causing death.

Pugliese said that the statewide advocacy organization, Bike Walk Tennessee, will be promoting awareness of this and the 3′ Safe Passing Law across the state, while his office will continue to work with local law enforcement to ensure there is increased public awareness of pedestrian and bicycle related traffic law.