A proposed Dunwoody ordinance would establish extra protections for cyclists and pedestrians traveling local streets beyond what current state law requires and, if approved, would make the city the first in the state to enact a “vulnerable road user” law.
Councilmember Tom Lambert made a passionate plea to the council at the Sept. 23 meeting to approve the vulnerable road user, or VRU, ordinance, saying doing so would save lives of those who choose to move around the city on a bike or by walking. Only nine states have VRU laws and all were passed in response to fatalities, he told the council.
“The city has never flinched when it comes to public safety,” he said. “We cannot wait until we have blood on our streets.”
Currently, only 10% of city roads have bike lanes and only 23% have sidewalks, Lambert said. Georgia reported 130 pedestrian deaths last year. He said there have been several incidents in the city where pedestrians and cyclists have been nearly struck by a speeding car. One local jogger was struck by a car as she ran in a crosswalk and sustained serious injuries, he said.
Lambert explained the local ordinance would mirror some of the state laws protecting cyclists and pedestrians, but adds more protections. For example, state law only requires motorists to give cyclists 3 feet of space when passing them. The Dunwoody VRU ordinance would require commercial vehicles to give at least 6 feet of space when passing a cyclist.
The ordinance might not apply to incidents where cyclists or pedestrians were violating state law, including not riding in bike lanes or walking on sidewalks where they are available.
Several council members balked at the 6-feet requirement for commercial vehicles, saying that is too much to ask for those driving on some of the city’s major thoroughfares and two-lane roads where traffic is often bumper-to-bumper in both directions.
“Six feet takes up more road and there could be unintended consequences on a two-lane road … with someone going into the other lane and in a head-on collision,” Mayor Denis Shortal said.
Lambert said he was willing to compromise on the 6 feet to gain support for the ordinance.
The proposed VRU prohibits motorists from throwing objects at cyclists, of driving too close to try to intimidate them and of turning right in front of them.
The proposed ordinance also moves beyond state law with enhanced penalties. Violators could be sentenced to six months in jail, made to pay up to a $1,000 fine and have their driver’s license suspended.
The penalties could be reduced or dropped if the motorist completed a court-mandated driver safety/pedestrian awareness class.
Shortal expressed his concern that someone could falsely accuse another person of violating the VRU ordinance and ruin their reputation as part of a so-called “vendetta.”
“Your good name is all you got in life,” he said.
He said he would like the ordinance to include a provision that if a false accusation were made then the accuser would face penalties.
He explained when he served in the Marine Corp and the military passed a law banning sexual harassment, there were many false accusations made due to bitter breakups.
Police Chief Billy Grogan tried to explain to Shortal that the only way a person would be ticketed for violating the proposed VRU ordinance is if a police officer witnessed the act. A violation can’t just be reported, Grogan said.
Shortal said he understood that but still believed there could be false accusations made. And if the press learned of the accusation and published a story, a person’s name could be ruined, he said.
Lambert acknowledged there is opposition from some in the community and read an email from one resident who said the city should pass a law against cyclists instead of drivers. The resident said cyclists should stay off the city’s busier roads and ride in a park instead.
“This is the type of driver that believes they own the road and likely to buzz a bike rider or throw a soda out the window at a jogger to try to send a message,” Lambert said.
It is this attitude the VRU ordinance wants to address to educate drivers about those who do not use a car to get around the city, he said.
The idea behind the proposed law is not to be punitive, but to educate drivers, Lambert said.
Resident Cheryl Summers also voiced her opposition to the proposed law at a previous meeting, saying existing state law protects cyclists and pedestrians.
“I don’t see the need for this,” she said. “I don’t know of any driver or operator of a vehicle who would deliberately try to run down a pedestrian or one of these others vulnerable road users. I think this is a little ridiculous and redundant to what we already have.”
Lambert said he wanted Dunwoody to “blaze a trail” by passing the VRU law to set an example for other municipalities. Some council members suggested Lambert reach out to neighboring cities to see if they want to join in now on passing such an ordinance. There was also discussion about the city supporting a statewide VRU law.
This story has been updated.