A bill to be introduced in the state legislature would make it a crime to kill or seriously injure a person with a car while violating a traffic law—a response to the killing of City Council aide Tatsuo Nakata by driver Ephraim Schwartz, who struck Nakata in a crosswalk while talking on his cell phone.
Last year, the King County Superior Court overturned a city ordinance that made killing or injuring someone while breaking traffic laws a gross misdemeanor, arguing that state law bars cities from criminalizing traffic infractions except in a few specific situations, such as when a driver has been drinking. The legislation would add violating traffic laws to that list. The new crime would be known as "assault by vehicle," to distinguish it from vehicular assault, a felony.
"The problem we're trying to address is that there's a big gap between a civil infraction"—a traffic ticket—"and a felony," says City Attorney Tom Carr, who's pushing for the legislation. "It's my view that if you speed regularly through school zones and 99 percent of the time nothing happens, but one percent of the time you seriously injure somebody, that should be more serious" than a mere traffic violation, Carr says.
The bill, which could be introduced by state Sen. Joe McDermott, D-34, is also supported by the Cascade Bicycle Club. David Hiller, advocacy director for the Club, says the legislation "makes the penalty more closely fit the crime. It increases the level of responsibility for people who drive." Hiller says opposition to the bill has come from both privacy advocates (who don't want evidence from red-light cameras to be used in criminal cases) and some legislators, who feel, as drivers, that "there but for the grace of God go I," Hiller says.
McDermott has not yet returned a call for comment about the legislation.