During the legislative session that just ended in Olympia, the story of Kevin Black was told at committee hearings as an example of why Washington State needed a new law protecting cyclists. Black, 39, was riding to work in Ballard on February 4, 2009, when a van made a sudden U-turn in front of him. He collided with the van, and then the van rolled over him. He died, leaving behind a wife and two daughters, ages 10 and 13.
"This case, and many cases like it, were an incentive to get the bill passed," says Sue Evans, a spokesperson for Black's family.
In response, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 5326, the "Vulnerable User Bill," which increases the penalty for negligent driving in the second degree in Washington State (formerly just a $250 fine). Under the new law, which was signed by Governor Chris Gregoire on May 16, courts can levy a fine of up to $5,000 against negligent drivers who cause the death or "great bodily harm" of a biker or other vulnerable roadway user—a designation that includes everyone from pedestrians to drivers of farm tractors. These negligent drivers can also have their driver's licenses suspended for 90 days.
The new law comes too late to have a direct impact on Black's case, but his family has found legal resolution through a different route. In a complaint filed in 2009, Seattle attorney James S. Rogers argued that the driver failed to stay in one lane, keep a proper lookout for the cyclist, or exercise appropriate care. The death was "solely and proximately caused by defendant['s]... negligent operation of her vehicle," he told the court. On May 31, Black's family announced a $1.5 million settlement in the wrongful death lawsuit they'd brought against the van operator, Ambient Control Co.
"This was a preventable tragedy," says Rogers, who represented the family. "Kevin was an experienced cyclist and commuted daily on his bicycle. It's clear that the driver of the van did not see Kevin. But as more and more people choose to commute by bicycle, it is critical that drivers understand they share our roadways with cyclists."