Fatal Bicycle Accident Raises Questions, Controversy
June 2nd, 2018
When a bicyclist was killed in a collision with a dump truck near Rice University in April, police were quick to tell reporters at the scene that it appeared the cyclist might have been at fault. But, it rapidly became clear that the situation was much more complicated. Public protests and op-eds once again drew attention to the dangers Houston bicyclists face and whether the local officials are doing enough to make the city safe for cyclists. 30-year-old Sudipta Roy was the third bicyclist killed in the city in April.
The bicyclist’s husband moved swiftly to file a wrongful death suit, requesting and receiving a restraining order to protect any evidence that might be under the control of the trucking company. His lawsuit and the public outcry surrounding his wife’s death is turning attention toward a Houston ordinance–the Vulnerable Road User law–some drivers may not be aware of.
The City of Houston Vulnerable Road User (Safe Passing) Ordinance
The Houston Vulnerable Road User Ordinance was designed to protect not just bicyclists, but other “vulnerable road users,” including:
- Pedestrians / runners
- Disabled persons
- Stranded motorists / passengers
- Tow truck operators
- Utility, maintenance, or highway construction workers
- A person on horseback
- The operator of a horse-driven conveyance, such as a carriage
- A motorcyclist or operator of a motor-scooter or moped
The ordinance requires Houston motorists to take special precautions when sharing the roadway with these at-risk travelers. Some of the special obligations and restrictions include:
- Passing the vulnerable road user at a safe distance, which is defined as at least three feet for passenger vehicles and six feet for commercial vehicles. The acceptable buffer may be greater depending on specific conditions such as whether, traffic, and road conditions.
- Leaving a safe distance when trailing a vulnerable road user.
- When making a turn at an intersection, yielding to an oncoming vulnerable road user.
- Refraining from maneuvering a vehicle in a manner intended to intimidate, harass, or threaten a vulnerable road user.
The provision of the Houston Vulnerable Road User Ordinance most clearly at issue in Sudipta Roy’s death says that the occupant of a motor vehicle may not “overtake a vulnerable road user traveling in the same direction and subsequently make a turn in front of the vulnerable road user unless the operater is safely clear of the vulnerable road user.” Roy and the dump truck driver were traveling in the same direction as they approached the intersection, and the dump truck turned right into Roy’s path. She collided with the rear of the truck as she entered the intersection.
While much is still unknown about this particular accident, and the victim’s husband’s legal team will likely have to work with experts to reconstruct what happened and who was responsible, awareness of the Safe Passing ordinance is important for everyone. This ordinance is a key for victims in establishing liability for a bicycle accident.
The Houston Police Department (HPD), Bike Houston, and other organizations and activists work hard to spread the word about the risks to bicyclists, motorcyclists, and other vulnerable road users. The HPD even conducted a public awareness event last year, introducing radar-gun like devices that would allow police officers to measure whether a vehicle maintained a safe passing distance from bicycles and other at-risk travelers. However, risks remain significant. Although the 2017 Mobility Report from the Houston-Galveston Area Metropolitan Planning Organization showed a 15% year-over-year decline in pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities and an 8% drop in incapacitating injuries, numbers remained high. There were 178 non-motorist traffic fatalities and another 422 serious injuries.
Even as safety improvements such as bike lanes and stricter enforcement of provisions like the Vulnerable Road User ordinance make the roads safer for bicyclists, pedestrians, motorcyclists, and others, road-user vigilance will remain a critical element in keeping the roads safe. Whether you are a motorist, a bicyclist, or other road user, it is important for everyone that you educate yourself about both legal requirements and safety measures to protect yourself and others on the road.
Rebecca is the newest member of Simmons and Fletcher, P.C. She earned her Juris Doctorate from South Texas College of Law in 2016 and was chosen for her extraordinary advocacy skills. Her experience as an Attorney has been exclusively working in the field of personal injury.