A not-so-funny thing happened to former Madison mayor Dave Cieslewicz on his way to work on Wednesday, October 16, his eighth day as executive director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.
Two blocks from his downtown office on East Main Street, a van suddenly pulled into Cieslewicz's path.
"I yelled and the driver slammed on the brakes," he said. "But the van nicked the back of my bike and knocked off my panier."
"A conversation ensued" between Cieslewicz and the driver of the van, the former recalled. "The driver said, 'I just wasn't paying attention.'''
Noting the irony, Cieslewicz shared details of the incident later the same day with members of the State Senate Committee Transportation, Public Safety and Veterans and Military Affairs. He was there to testify in favor of a bill that would increase penalties for motorists who seriously injure or kill bicyclists, pedestrians and other vulnerable road users.
Cieslewicz - known widely as "Mayor Dave" as much for serving as mayor of Madison from 2003 to 2011 as for having a difficult to pronounce last name - said he was lucky his yelling got the attention of the driver of the van.
"So it wasn't politically motivated," Sen. Jerry Petrowski, chairman of the committee, jokingly interjected.
No, Cieslewicz agreed. But the collision could have had consequences so serious "I might not have been here with you today," he said.
Several other people testified about losing friends and loved ones to bicycle-motor vehicle collisions, including cyclists Troy Tausey of Sheboygan and Jeff Littman of Waukesha County as well as cyclist and Birkie founder David Landgraf of Hayward. (Click on their names for previous coverage in Silent Sportsof the crashes that claimed their lives.)
Senate Bill 307 would create enhanced penalties for existing traffic violations (including failure to yield, improper passing and inattentive driving) if they result in great bodily harm or death of a vulnerable users. Fines of $1,000 to $10,000 and jail terms of 90 days to nine months could be imposed in such cases. The bill would also double the penalties for drunk drivers who harm vulnerable users.
Currently such cases rarely result in criminal charges or fines of more than a few hundred dollars. That aggravates cyclists such as Greg Ferguson of Middleton. "If you kill through negligence, a $100 fine or nothing is disrespectful of the value of a person's life," he told the committee.
Nevertheless, some senators on the committee questioned whether such a case would be handled differently under a vulnerable user law if the evidence at a crash scene remains insufficient to support criminal prosecution.
Cieslewicz said prosecutors and judges need to be given the discretion to levy charges "in keeping with the severity" of collisions that have tragic consequences for cyclists, walkers, riders of horse-drawn buggies, road workers, law enforcement officers among others.
An earlier version of the bill included motorcyclists as vulnerable users, too, but they were taken out when A Brotherhood of Totalitarian Enactments (ABATE) objected. Members of that organization argued that harm that comes to anyone in a traffic accident is no more or less tragic because the victim is a particular category of road user.
But Jessica Binder of the Bike Fed countered that because nonmotorists are more at risk, motorists have greater responsibility to stay in control of their vehicles.