If last week's Critical Mass melee (see "Critical Error," Jonah Spangenthal-Lee) accomplished anything positive, it was that it sparked a citywide conversation about how cyclists and drivers can more safely share the road. But the city recently lost one important tool for protecting pedestrians and cyclists—and it is going to court, and Olympia, to get it back.
In 2005, the Seattle City Council adopted an "assault by vehicle" ordinance that made it a crime (a gross misdemeanor, with the possibility of jail time) to knowingly assault someone with a vehicle. Ephraim Schwartz, the driver who struck and killed city council aide Tatsuo Nakata in 2006, was sentenced under that law.
Since then, two municipal court judges have overturned the new rule, arguing that it violates a state law that says cities can't criminalize violations of traffic rules. City Attorney Tom Carr has appealed their rulings in King County Superior Court, which won't hear the city's case until later this year.
In the meantime, drivers who strike pedestrians and cyclists may do so with relative impunity.
Carr says he disagrees that state law precludes a tougher city law. Unlike the state law, which deals with traffic infractions, Carr says the city law deals with a criminal act—assault. "The difference between assault and murder is the result of the action—if the person dies, it's murder, if they don't, it isn't," Carr says. Similarly, he argues, if a person harms someone with his car, that's assault, not a mere traffic violation.
While the city waits for its day in court, Carr says he's talking to legislators—in particular, South Seattle legislators Sharon Tomiko-Santos in the house and Adam Kline in the senate—about changing state law to allow cities to pass tougher laws for things like intentionally running someone over.
But Cleve Stockmeyer, an attorney who serves on the board of the pedestrian- advocacy group Feet First, argues that going to the legislature could actually hurt the city's position. He says the real question is "what is the effect of setting a precedent that means... we have to ask permission in Olympia every time we want to change our local laws?"