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California Legislation Watch: Weekly Update

Here is Streetsblog’s weekly highlight of California legislation related to sustainable transportation.

School Zone Safety: S.B. 1151 from Anthony Canella (R-Ceres) would raise fines for traffic infractions within school zones. The bill passed the Assembly Transportation Committee, 14-0, and now goes to the Appropriations Committee.

Vulnerable User Law Jumps Ahead: A.B. 2398 from Marc Levine (D-San Rafael) was withdrawn from the Senate Public Safety Committee because that committee agreed with a recent amendment to lower the limit on maximum fines under the bill. Now it goes straight to Appropriations, where the deadline to get out of that committee is August 15. Session ends August 31.

Hit-and-Run Bills on Track: Two bills from Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) both passed their committees this weekA.B. 47 would create a “yellow alert” system to find hit-and-run perpetrators and A.B. 1532 would automatically suspend a driver’s license for leaving the scene of a crash where someone is hit. A.B. 1532 was also amended to add the possibility charging a of a non-injury hit-and-run as either an infraction or a misdemeanor, but the six-month license suspension remains.

Bicycle Infrastructure Funds From Vehicle Registrations: S.B. 1183 by Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) passed the Assembly Transportation Committee after being amended this week. This bill would allow local agencies to propose a fee of no more than $5 on vehicle registrations to pay for the maintenance of bike paths. The fee would have to be approved by two-thirds of the voters in the districts where it would apply. This week’s amendments include the addition of a sunset date of January 2025 and a requirement to report to the legislature on revenues received and projects supported by the fee. The 10-4 vote moves it to the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Protected Bike Lanes: A.B. 1193 from Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) was amended and passed the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee this week.

Email tips, alerts, press releases, ideas, etc. to melanie@streetsblog.org.

For social media coverage focused on state-wide issues, follow Melanie @currymel on Twitter or like our Facebook page.

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CA Bills to Crack Down on Hit-and-Run Drivers Sail Through Committees

Two bills focused on addressing hit-and-run crashes, authored by CA Assemblymember Mike Gatto, appear quickly on their way to being passed. A.B. 47, which would create an alert system on California highways to help the public assist police in catching drivers involved in hit-and-run crashes, sailed through the Senate Public Safety Committee Tuesday with a 6-1 vote. A.B. 1532Gatto’s other bill which increases fines and penalties for hit-and-run drivers, passed a separate committee.

Assemblymember Mike Gatto looks on as Damian Kevitt testifies to the Senate Public Safety Committee. Image: CA Senate

The bill has seen a torrent of support from a broad range of constituents, including bicycle and pedestrian advocates and public safety workers. Its next stop is the Senate Appropriations Committee.

At the hearing, Gatto testified that the bill specifies certain criteria that would have to be met before authorities could use the system, to allay concerns that it would be overused. A hit-and-run crash would have to involve a fatality or serious bodily injury, and officials would need at least partial plate numbers and a description of the vehicle.

“We have an apprehension rate in this state of 20 percent,” said Gatto, “so 80 percent of hit-and-run perpetrators never get caught. The city of Denver created a similar system in 2012; at the time they also had a twenty percent apprehension rate, and now they have a 76 percent rate of apprehension.”

“This is a smart way to make sure we can catch the people who commit the most heinous and cowardly accidents on the road with a deadly weapon—because vehicles are deadly weapons,” he said.

Damian Kevitt, a hit-and-run victim who now leads the “Finish the Ride” movement in Southern California, urged Senators to vote for the bill. He described the gruesome crash that left him for dead on the freeway a year ago, and called his recovery a “testimony to modern medicine.” Read more…

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Weekend Memorial Events Highlight Continued Vulnerability of Cyclists

Friends of Oscar Toledo, Jr., gather around the ghost bike put up at 47th and Normandie in South LA. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Friends of Oscar Toledo, Jr., gather around the ghost bike put up at 47th and Normandie in South LA. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

For those of us who pay attention to such things, it was a terribly mournful weekend.

Friday night, friends and family gathered at 47th and Normandie to witness the installation of a ghost bike in honor of hit-and-run victim Oscar Toledo, Jr., at the growing memorial there.

His youth and the freshness of the event meant that emotions were running high. When I spotted Toledo’s girlfriend, she threw herself into my arms, her body shaking with sobs.

“IT’S BEEN THREE FUCKING DAYS!” she wailed in disbelief.

She wasn’t the only one in tears. As the group gathered in a circle to hold hands and say a few words about Toledo, people cried openly and cursed both the unfairness of their loss and the person who had done this to someone they had loved.

The mood was more subdued Saturday afternoon for the Memorial Ride for Benjamin Torres, killed in an early morning hit-and-run in Gardena.

When the East Side Riders — now, in conjunction with Los Ryderz and the team from Ghost Bike Documentary — promised to do a monthly ride to honor Torres until justice was finally served, I don’t know if they realized justice would seem more elusive than ever two years on.

We had all hoped someone would come forward or have a change of heart and accept responsibility for the deed. Instead, the family has had to find solace in their memories and the ever-growing network of families and friends whose loved ones have been left to die in the streets.

But, even when the perpetrator is known, there is a limit to the comfort that knowledge and the extended bike family can offer, as was evident at Sunday’s memorial ride and vigil for Phillip O’Neill.

The case against the driver Jose Gonzales, charged with manslaughter for striking O’Neill from behind and killing him, is currently making its way through the court system. Unfortunately, as the friends and family of September hit-and-run victim Andy Garcia know all too well, Gonzales’ prosecution will neither bring O’Neill back nor fill the void his loss created.

Read more…

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“What Happened to Human Decency?”: Friends and Family of South L.A. Hit-and-Run Victim Seek Answers

Friends of Oscar Toledo, Jr., gather to mourn at the site where he was killed by a hit-and-run driver near 47th and Normandie in South L.A.  Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

Friends of Oscar Toledo, Jr., gather to mourn at the site where he was killed by a hit-and-run driver near 47th and Normandie in South L.A. Sahra Sulaiman/Streetsblog LA

“I know it wasn’t even his fuckin’ fault!” railed Daniela, 19.

She was unsuccessfully fighting back tears yesterday as she stood alongside the light pole serving as the unofficial memorial site for bicyclist Oscar Toledo, Jr., killed in a hit-and-run at 47th and Normandie in South L.A. less than 24 hours earlier.

Toledo had “always [been] chillin’ on his mountain bike; always safe,” she said. And, because he had grown up on the streets and had always had to watch his back, he was hyper-aware of what was around him, careful about safety, and “always on his toes.”

So, when she got the call from Toledo’s younger brother at 3 a.m. Thursday morning, she couldn’t believe it.

He had just been at her house earlier that night. She had just seen him — it didn’t make any sense.

She and Toledo’s best friend agreed to go to the hospital first thing in the morning to “see if it was real.”

Seeing him laying there, bloody and hooked up to so many tubes had been overwhelming. It denied her one last chance to hold him in her arms.

“I told him, ‘I really couldn’t imagine life without you,’” she said of a recent conversation they had had.

Hugging herself, she leaned against the exterior of a building and stared at the small memorial they had set up.

“Now, I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Read more…

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Gatto Legislation Would Create Alert System For Hit-and-Run Crashes

Police in Orange in Southern California released this picture of a truck driven by a hit-and-run perpetrator two weeks ago. With AB 47, there would be a much higher chance drivers like this one are caught. Photo: NBC4

It is too common a story. A family is crossing the street or some friends are bicycling along when a negligent car driver changes their lives forever. While the victims lie wounded in the street, the driver flees and is never heard from again. Advocates for safe streets, victims of hit-and-run crashes, and their friends and family say that there are not enough resources or legal protections for victims.

Asm. Gatto

Assemblymember Mike Gatto

One California Assemblymember has vowed to change that.

Assembly Bill 47, a heavily amended version of legislation re-introduced this week by Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-LA), would create a statewide “yellow alert system” modeled after the Medina Alert system, which was created in Denver but is now a statewide program in Colorado.

The system would require that Caltrans and other highway owners use electronic signage, radio, and other available media to broadcast information about vehicles suspected in hit-and-run crashes. Unlike alerts issued over TV news, the yellow alerts would enlist drivers and other road users to spot hit- and-run drivers right away.

Basically, the bill would create an “Amber Alert” system similar to what is used when a child is kidnapped to help catch hit-and-run drivers.

“These are crimes which, by their nature, occur at a high rate of speed and with clear means for fleeing the scene,” said Gatto.  “The public is almost always needed to catch those who leave fellow citizens dying on the side of the road, and AB 47 will allow us to do so promptly, before the perpetrator can get away and cover up the evidence.”

Last year, Gatto authored AB 184, which doubled the statute of limitations on prosecuting hit-and-run drivers.  This year, he also introduced AB 1532, which would require mandatory license suspension for anyone convicted of a hit-and-run involving another person.  Read more…

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California Legislation Watch: Weekly Update

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 4.34.24 PM

The California Legislature saw a lot of action in the last two weeks on bills related to sustainable transportation. The deadline to pass bills out of committee was on the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, and today is the deadline for all bills to be voted on by their houses of origin. If they couldn’t pass by today from the Senate to the Assembly, or vice versa, then they died for this session.

Below are the fates of some of the bills Streetsblog has been following. There are a few other relevant bills that don’t appear here because they have already passed from their house of origin, including S.B. 1151, which would raise fines for traffic violations in school zones, and A.B. 1193, which would require Caltrans to institute standards for protected bike lanes.

A driver’s license is still more important than the safety of bicycle riders and pedestrians: A.B. 2398, Marc Levine’s (D-San Rafael) Vulnerable User Law, passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week, but not before it was amended to delete the automatic driver’s license suspension it originally called for. As it’s written now, the bill would raise fines and add a point against a driver’s record if the driver is convicted of causing bodily injury to a vulnerable road user, including bicyclists and pedestrians. The bill passed the Assembly 72-2.

At least they’ll have to stop: A.B. 1532 from Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) also passed the Assembly, on a 74-4 vote. This bill would suspend the license of a driver convicted of leaving the scene of a crash where any person is struck, whether that person is injured or not. “Victims and families deserve to know that cowards who drive recklessly, and purposefully avoid responsibility, can no longer drive the streets,” said Gatto in a press release. “AB 1532 is a sensible fix to the law that will lead people to think twice before leaving the scene of an accident.”

Read more…

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Addressing the Hit-and-Run Epidemic: When “Finishing the Ride” Acts as the Launch of a Movement

Riders gather for the start of Damian Kevitt's Finish the Ride event. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Riders gather for the start of Damian Kevitt’s Finish the Ride event. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

So, this is what it takes to make people angry enough to care, I thought as I looked out over the sea of elected officials, journalists, cameras, and cyclists gathering at the start point for Damian Kevitt’s Finish the Ride event Sunday morning.

It apparently takes someone like Kevitt being dragged under a van onto the freeway, suffering 20 broken bones, losing a leg, and surviving for the city to finally recoil in horror at what is being called the “hit-and-run epidemic plaguing Los Angeles.”

Somehow, until now, the approximately 20,000 hit-and-runs recorded in the city each year — only 20% of which are ever solved — had not been enough to get people riled up.

Neither had the fact that the actual number of hit-and-runs is probably much, much higher.

Bike commuters, wheelchair users, and youth in lower-income areas often tell me they’ve been hit multiple times but have never reported the incidents. Even the incident that killed Andy Garcia last September in Boyle Heights was not the first encounter he had had with a hit-and-run driver. The first had happened several months earlier and left him unconscious and bleeding from the head by the side of the road. It was not reported.

Damian Kevitt and his mom take a bow at Tom LaBonge's behest. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Damian Kevitt and his mom take a bow at Tom LaBonge’s behest. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

And, sympathy has not always been with the victims.

In reports about such incidents, events have often been described in a way that blamed cyclists or pedestrians for being in the street or behaving badly before all the details of the case were fully established. Meanwhile, trying to get accurate and meaningful data on hit-and-runs from the LAPD so that the problem can be better understood remains somewhat of an exercise in futility (see here and here).

Even those reporting a hit-and-run at 120th and S. Figueroa just this past weekend still seemed to be struggling to strike the right tone when they began by announcing that the slain man, 47-year-old Von Dedric Miles, “has an arrest record, but…is clearly the victim in this case.”

That approach is likely due to the attitude of many, including some of those in law enforcement, that pedestrians and cyclists are a nuisance to drivers. Read more…

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Judge to Hit-and-Run Perpetrator: Don’t Do it Again or it Will Be Considered Murder

Carmen Tellez, mother of hit-and-run victim, speaks to local news outlets following the sentencing hearing for Wendy Villegas. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Carmen Tellez, mother of hit-and-run victim Andy Garcia, tells local news outlets she is disappointed with the outcome of the sentencing hearing for Wendy Villegas. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“If you drink and drive and kill someone again, [this time] it will carry a charge of murder with a minimum sentence of 15 years,” the judge told 21-year-old Wendy Villegas at her sentencing hearing. “Do you understand?”*

Her words had been meant to admonish Villegas — to convey the idea that slamming into a group of cyclists, killing Luis “Andy” Garcia and leaving Mario Lopez and Ulises Melgar for dead, was a very serious offense.

Unfortunately, the judge’s warning that the book would be thrown at her next time only served to underscore the fact that our laws do not yet take drunk driving or hit-and-runs seriously enough.

Fire a gun into a crowd and injure four people at a party at USC, and you’ll get forty years to life.** Get behind the wheel, and you apparently have to kill a second time before the death you cause is legally classifiable as a homicide.

From where I and 40 other members of Garcia’s family and friends sat, staring at the back of Villegas’ head, it was hard to tell if the judge’s words — or anything else, for that matter — made an impression on her.

She never met anyone’s gaze as she walked in and out of the sentencing hearing, never turned to look at anyone as she sat facing the judge, never appeared to show any emotion, and never uttered a word, other than to answer the judge’s direct yes-or-no questions.

It drove Garcia’s friends and family crazy. Read more…

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Plea Deal for Drunk Driver that Killed Andy Garcia Does Little to Ease Pain of Victims, Friends, and Families

Ulises Melgar and Mario Lopez (both hit by Wendy Villegas last Sept.) and friend Andrew Gomez in downtown L.A.  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Ulises Melgar and Mario Lopez (both hit by drunk driver Wendy Villegas last Sept.) and friend Andrew Gomez in Downtown L.A. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Even the judge looked confused when the plea deal offered to Wendy Villegas was read out in court, says a somber Mario Lopez.

Villegas could have been sentenced to up to 15 years for having come tearing up the bridge on Cesar Chavez drunk last September 14th, slamming into Luis “Andy” Garcia and dragging his bike under her car, launching both Lopez and Ulises Melgar into the air, and fleeing the scene.

Instead, she was offered a deal of 3 years and 8 months — a sentence that fit within the window of what she might have gotten just for driving drunk and leaving the scene of a crash. And, because she is young and has a clean record, she will likely only serve a portion of that time.

The deal makes it painfully clear to her victims and their friends and families that she will not be asked to atone for the human cost of the havoc she wreaked that September night. And, they are not happy about it.

“How did it end up wrapping up so fast like that?” asks Melgar.

It’s a good question.

The damage had been severe. Garcia died on the scene, while both Melgar and Lopez had ended up in the hospital. The compression fracture Lopez sustained in his lower back forced him to move back home with his parents and lose three months of work.

And, there was no shortage of evidence linking her to the crime, including a witness — “my personal hero,” as Lopez calls him — who saw what happened and followed Villegas as she weaved her way home that night. Because he had been able to get her license number, the police were to verify that she had been driving drunk when they booked her — still intoxicated — at 7:15 the next morning.

Yet, the young men were not consulted about the plea offer. Nor were Garcia’s parents. The only chance any of them had to participate in the legal process was to read out statements about how Villegas’ actions had affected their lives when she finally entered a “no contest” plea last month.

“It just infuriates me sometimes,” says Lopez, shaking his head over how effectively they’d been shut out of an opportunity to seek justice. “I’d be semi, semi-happy if she did 3 years and 8 months. But she’s not [going to].”

We are sitting in a largely empty IHOP in Downtown L.A. so, as Lopez put it, we could have “something sweet as we discuss[ed] something not so sweet.”

But the smiley-faced pancakes Lopez ordered do little to make the conversation easier as we turn to what life has been like for them since that night.

The first days had been hard, they agree.

They couldn’t accept what had happened, despite having seen it unfold in front of their eyes. Read more…

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Bill Suspending Hit-and-Run Drivers’ Licenses Passes Assembly Committee

Last week, the Associated Press released a video of a hit-and-run crash in Orange County. The video is available to view here.

The California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee voted 7-0 Tuesday to approve A.B. 1532, which would require an automatic license suspension for drivers who flee the scene of a crash where a person is hit, even if that person is not injured.

That unanimous vote marks an exceptional win for the bill, which was introduced by Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles). Typically, bills which increase penalties for existing crimes or increase the burden on law enforcement are subject to extra scrutiny and face an uphill battle gaining committee votes.

CA’s current hit-and-run laws require drivers to stop when they are involved in crashes, and drivers who kill or seriously injure others and flee the scene can face severe penalties. A.B. 1532 would add penalties for cases where the injuries are minor, including automatic license suspension.

“The bill’s key aspect is that it increases minimum penalties so there is no less than a six-month mandatory license suspension,” explained Damian Kevitt of FinishtheRide.org. “That way prosecutors can no longer mitigate a hit-and-run down to a $500 misdemeanor fine, which is a slap on the wrist.”

“Hit-and-run drivers should be penalized, as this legislation requires,” said Nicole Schneider, executive director of Walk San Francisco, who applauded the bill as “a good step towards creating a culture where people respect each other.”

“This addresses the middle ground for those hit-and-runs that aren’t severe, making a statement that it’s not okay to leave the scene of a crash.”

Read more…