Cyclists often quip that motorists have a license to kill, given the lack of prosecutions after car-bike crashes. But in North Dakota, the dark joke may soon become reality.
Both local riders and transportation advocates became alarmed when Rep. Keith Kempenich (R) introduced House Bill 1203 on January 9 in the North Dakota House of Representatives stating that “a driver of a motor vehicle who negligently causes injury or death to an individual obstructing vehicular traffic on a public road… may not be held liable for any damages.”
Kempenich introduced the legislation after his mother-in-law nearly struck a Dakota Access Pipeline protestor with her car. He did not respond to a request for comment.
The nebulous language of Kempenich’s bill could give drivers the green light to crash into and kill anyone—including cyclists—who they consider to be impeding traffic, with little or no criminal or civil ramifications, says attorney Megan Hottman, who specializes in cycling cases.
“This [bill] seems to give room to folks driving cars to hit anyone, pedestrian or cyclist, and likely not be held liable,” Hottman says. “Every insurance company in civil claims in North Dakota would use this as a basis to deny claims by any cyclist injured or killed by a motorist. …The language here is so broad and sweeping, it really does open the door for all claims against a negligent motorist to be denied.”
If read strictly, the language specifying “pedestrians on roadways” at the top of the bill might prevent it from being used against cyclists, but that’s not necessarily a given. Hottman suggested the legislature could do away with the ambiguity by adding an exception for bicyclists legally riding on roadways, but that has yet to happen.
“I do worry that this would become a slippery slope,” Hottman said. “It feels to me like [this bill and any similar bills following it] really start to empower motorists to drive however they want and to worry less about being safe and careful.”
Sara Watson Curry, a cycling advocate with Great Rides Fargo, calls the bill “really silly.” She says she fears it could encourage vehicular violence against protestors, cyclists, and pedestrians. North Dakota needs legislation “to make it easier and safer for people to walk and bike, not less,” she says.
Kempenich’s fellow legislator, Rep. Gretchen Dobervich (D), says the legislation is an emotional, knee-jerk reaction to the Dakota Access spotlight. Her Transportation Committee will hear the bill Friday.
Dobervish says she hadn’t considered how the bill might impact cyclists until she began getting calls from bike-riding constituents who were afraid that if it passed, they might have targets on their backs.
“We’ve been having some informal talk about the bill and the potentially huge legal ramifications, [in essence] legalizing vehicular homicide,” Dobervich says. “The bill isn’t logical, it’s not productive, and it doesn’t move us forward as a society. I think it’s going to die a quick death in committee and won’t be reintroduced in the future.”
If the bill does happen to move forward Friday, it would be up for a full vote later in the session. (The full text of the bill can be read on the state legislature’s website.) The North Dakota legislature is currently majority Republican.