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Negligent drivers who kill pedestrians in WA may face new penalties

caption: Perry Casper told Washington legislators the driver of an SUV veered into his yard in Vancouver, WA, killing his daughter Rachel.
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Perry Casper told Washington legislators the driver of an SUV veered into his yard in Vancouver, WA, killing his daughter Rachel.
Courtesy of TVW.

Amidst what experts call a “crisis” of car-pedestrian crashes nationwide, lawmakers in Washington have increased the criminal penalties drivers can face for fatal crashes.

Under Washington’s current traffic laws, negligent drivers who plead guilty and haven’t used drugs or alcohol can potentially face just a $250 civil fine.

That’s what happened to the driver who swerved off the road June 13, 2020, in Vancouver, Washington, killing 28-year-old Rachel Casper. Her father Perry Casper described her death to legislators last month.

Casper said the SUV driver “went through five 4x4 posts of our picket fence and crashed into a tree in our yard. My daughter was in the front yard laying there; she’d been killed.”

Casper said the driver’s conduct was not deemed to meet the bar for a felony charge. Instead, the man was assigned to community service and driving classes. Casper said the driver didn’t lose his license or his vehicle.

He said as a result of a civil lawsuit, the man will contribute $12,000 to a scholarship fund in Rachel Casper’s name. Casper described his daughter as an animal lover with a degree in zoology.

Casper spoke in support of HB 1112, which creates a new gross misdemeanor penalty for negligent drivers who kill “vulnerable user victims,” which can include pedestrians, cyclists, and people riding tractors or horses on the roadway.

It would be punishable by up to 365 days in jail, a $5,000 fine, which may not be reduced below $1,000, or both. A person convicted of this crime will also lose their driving privileges for 90 days.

Prosecutors say the criminal penalty is needed when drivers disregard the safety of others. Amy Freedheim heads the felony traffic unit at the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

She told legislators that pedestrian crashes are soaring, and that deaths like Casper’s that do not meet the bar for felony charges are not uncommon.

“I have to decline these fatality crashes at least once a month,” Freedheim said.

The Washington Defender Association opposed the change. Attorney Teri Kemp told legislators that drivers shouldn’t be criminalized for ordinary negligence, defined as a failure to exercise caution but without intending to cause harm.

Kemp said, “although this conduct supports a civil lawsuit, it is unfair to criminally prosecute someone for a routine traffic accident that tragically resulted in the loss of life.”

The bill has passed both chambers of the Legislature and is awaiting Gov. Inslee’s signature. If signed into law, it would not take effect until Jan. 1, 2025, after a public awareness campaign by the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

The bill was a bipartisan effort. Rep. Paul Harris (R-Vancouver) pursued the legislation on behalf of the Casper family. Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos (D-Seattle) said she was sponsoring the legislation in memory of Tatsuo Nakata, a former legislative aide and chief of staff to Seattle City Councilmember David Della. Nakata was struck by a car and killed in 2006.

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