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D.C. postpones vote on bill that would protect injured cyclists and pedestrians

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A D.C. bill that would make it easier for cyclists and pedestrians to collect damages when they’re injured in collisions with vehicles is still alive.

The Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on Friday postponed until next week an important vote on the bill that would end the city’s law that recognizes contributory negligence and makes it more difficult for a cyclist or pedestrian who is found to be more than 1 percent at fault in a crash to recover damages.

The bill would end the contributory negligence standard in favor of a comparative negligence scheme that is now used in a majority of U.S. states. The change has overwhelming support from cycling and pedestrian groups and other transportation advocates, but is opposed by trial lawyers and insurance companies that claim the bill would have raised insurance costs to D.C. drivers.

The five-member committee was scheduled to vote on the proposal Friday, but at a Thursday rally supporters acknowledged that they lack the votes needed to get the bill out of committee and approved.

The committee’s chair, Council member Tommy Wells, said Friday that he will bring together the different groups, including insurers, trial lawyers and bike and pedestrian advocates, to discuss a compromise before bringing the bill back for a vote on Nov. 12.

“Rather than just letting it die, why don’t we still try to save the bill on a way that works for everyone,” Wells said at the committee meeting.

The bill’s sponsor, Council member David Grosso (D-At-Large), said Thursday that he expects to reintroduce the bill when the new council reconvenes in January. This is the third time the bill has been introduced.

Mayor-elect Muriel E. Bowser, who represents Ward 4 in the Council and is a member of the committee, was not at the meeting Friday.

In postponing the vote, committee members said they would have a chance to review the proposal and address lingering concerns.

Council member Anita Bonds (D-At Large) said she wants to address other bike safety issues including requiring cyclists to wear helmets, have lights, and stay off sidewalks in areas where there are bike lanes.

At a Thursday rally to support the legislation, bike and pedestrian advocates called the measure an important step to offer protections to vulnerable road users in a city where cycling and walking is encouraged. They say the problem is that under the current law when a cyclist is injured it is very difficult to receive compensation from insurers. Supporters say the District and four other states are the only remaining jurisdictions in the nation with the “outdated and unjust negligence standard.”

Insurers groups say the bill would result in unintended consequences that have not been fully vetted. They say studies suggest that a system of comparative fault results in more claim filings, which would add to an increase in expenses, and significant impacts on insurance costs.

“That’s a specially a concern in the District because it has such a disproportionately high percentage of uninsured drivers,” said Eric M. Goldberg, vice president of the American Insurance Association. He said one in five D.C. drivers are uninsured. “When costs go up, people who are most affected are people with few means. They are the ones who are least able to afford these cost increases and they may drop the coverage and that doesn’t benefit anybody,” Goldberg said.

Besides the likely increases to insurance costs, opponents say they fear businesses with large fleets would see significant cost increases when their insurance expenses go up, while the government would see additional expenses stemming from an increase in case filings.

Goldberg said instead the District could enact legislation that protects vulnerable users without changing the tort law.

“If a driver is at fault and injures somebody that is in a bicycle or other (road) user they have to be taken care of, but we need to figure out a way to do that in a way that doesn’t also increase costs on businesses, on the government and on drivers,” he said.

Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association said postponing the vote was better than having it killed. He said the group will be “happy to have another chance to explain the pressing public safety need to those Council members who need to hear more.”