Cyclist death spurs new law

Mary O’Donnell’s message to state senators last week was simple: Pass a proposed “vulnerable road users” bill so no other family has to suffer like hers.

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Published June 27, 2007 by Forest Grove News Times
By Kevin Harden 

Oregon — Mary O’Donnell’s message to state senators last week was simple: Pass a proposed “vulnerable road users” bill so no other family has to suffer like hers.

O’Donnell’s husband, Timothy was killed June 9 by a careless driver while cycling with a group outside Cornelius.

Her plea worked. With the widow watching in the state capitol, state senators overwhelmingly approved House Bill 3314 Monday 25 to 4 in Salem, sending the measure back to the House Wednesday morning, where lawmakers agreed to a couple of changes and sent the bill on to Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

“This is, from our standpoint, a really important effort to deal with a certain segment of cases where people are injured or killed on the roadway,” said Scott Bricker, policy director for the Bicycle Transportation Alliance in Portland, one of the groups that sought HB 3314 in mid-March. “There currently are few real penalties for careless driving that result in someone’s death.”

HB 3314 sets a higher standard for road safety that imposes a stiff fine and possible community service on drivers whose carelessness causes the death or serious injury to another person. It creates a class A traffic infraction for careless drivers who hurt or kill a “vulnerable” road user, such as a bicycle rider, a skateboarder, someone on a scooter or a farm tractor or agriculture vehicles without enclosed shells.

Someone convicted of the infraction could face a $12,500 fine, hours of community service and loss of a driver’s license. The person also might be required to pass a state-approved driver improvement class before the driver’s license would be returned.

Today, the penalty for careless driving is much less severe and usually involves only a fine.

“I think it’s a great first step,” said state Rep. Tobias Read, the Beaverton Democrat who carried the bill in mid-May when it was approved by the House 45 to 9. “It gives us a real good mechanism to bring tools and accountability to folks who make poor decisions and don’t behave responsibly on our roads.”

According to national data, from 2001 to 2005 there were 49 pedestrian and 10 bicycle fatalities on Oregon roads and highways.

Oregon’s Department of Transportation reported that since 2004 there have been 1,230 accidents involving motor vehicles that injured bicyclists and pedestrians. During that same time, 54 pedestrians and bicyclists have been killed in motor vehicle collisions.

Not a crime

Mary O’Donnell’s husband was killed in a bicycle-automobile collision on a rural road near Cornelius. She spent most of Monday afternoon watching the HB 3314 debate from the Senate gallery with her friend, Wendy Kroger of Beaverton.

Before senators voted on the measure, Mary O’Donnell sent a letter through Beaverton state Sen. Ryan Deckert’s office pleading with them to pass HB 3314. The one-page letter, which includes a picture of Timothy O’Donnell, told the story of his death and asked that the family’s sad story not be repeated by others in the future.

“Tim and I married when we were 16 and 17 years old,” Mary O’Donnell wrote. “We had 49 years together. It wasn’t enough, but it’s all we’ll have. I would rest easier if I knew that this senseless tragedy could bring some good. Please make that happen.”

Did her plea work? Did Timothy O’Donnell’s death spur the Senate to action?

It certainly was fresh in lawmakers’ minds when they took to the Senate floor Monday, Bricker said.

“I think that the recent tragic death of Tim O’Donnell compelled the media to write in support of these bills,” he said.

“Our perspective is that for these families (of careless driving crashes) something has to be done.”

Timothy O’Donnell was killed shortly after noon June 9 when the bicycle he was riding was struck by a 26-year-old Idaho woman in a 2008 Dodge Avenger on Northwest Cornelius-Schefflin Road near Cornelius.

Jennifer Knight of Hayden, Idaho, was passing a line of five bicycle riders on the road when her car slammed into O’Donnell, throwing him nearly 20 feet to the pavement. The retired Air Force master sergeant who lived in Aloha for nearly 30 years died within minutes. He was riding ahead of the Dodge and was trying to turn left onto Northwest Long Road when the collision occurred.

Knight was cited for careless driving, passing in a no-passing zone and driving with a suspended license. Knight wasn’t arrested – careless driving is not a crime – and the most severe penalty she could face is a $1,115 fine.

Touching lives

Timothy O’Donnell was on a long-distance ride with members of the Portland Velo Club’s A17 group. He started riding with the group about a year ago and had been getting stronger with each roll through the county, friends said.

His ride two weeks ago was a typical rural road loop that Velo Club members often took. The early June ride included three Velo Club members and a person who joined the riding group for the first time.

Each was “devastated” by the accident and O’Donnell’s death, said Carlo Delumpa, Portland Velo Club president.

O’Donnell was no stranger to riding his bicycle in heavy traffic. He commuted by bicycle several times a week from his Aloha home to his airplane mechanic’s job near Hillsboro Airport.

O’Donnell’s friends and family gathered Friday afternoon in Portland for a memorial service. Many said his death would leave a void in their lives.

“It’s had an impact way beyond the bicycling community,” said family friend John Ohnstad, who taught a spinning class and rode bicycles with O’Donnell. “He touched a lot of people’s lives.”