Jeff Michelland left courtroom 6C feeling frustrated.
It was a late August morning. Michelland, a federal prosecutor and cyclist, had just watched Judge Maria Gonzalez sentence an 84-year-old for careless driving at the Lee County Justice Center in downtown Fort Myers. Lee Luenser had swerved twice into a line of cyclists and injured five of them in a July crash on Fort Myers Beach.
Luenser's punishment: $1,000 and a yearlong license suspension, after which he'd need medical clearance to drive.
Michelland was there as a friend, not as a lawyer.
Meanwhile, Michelland's friend, Milton Quinonez, couldn't work or drive due to nonstop dizziness from a traumatic brain injury. The father of two girls had clung to life for days in critical condition. It pained Michelland to see this strong cyclist in his 40s reduced to rubble, especially given what Keith Spain, a Naples doctor on the ride, had told law enforcement. Luenser approached Spain after the crash as the doctor tried to keep Quinonez alive.
|Jeff Michelland, a federal prosecutor in Fort Myers and an avid cyclist, was instrumental in drafting a bill to better protect vulnerable users after his friend was severely injured in Fort Myers Beach.(News-Press Photo: Submitted)|
A crash report says Luenser may have had a medical event while driving.
For Michelland, the penalty didn't fit. It wasn't the judge's fault, he thought, it was a legal framework that allowed a paltry punishment for such an act. To him, it seemed like the driver was getting off with a slap on the wrist. As he was leaving the courtroom, Michelland noticed an unfamiliar face in the close-knit group of cyclists there.
"Why are you here?" he asked the woman, Tish Kelly, a competitive cyclist from Naples. Kelly and her friend, Collier County Commissioner Georgia Hiller, had been talking for months about how to beef up protections for vulnerable road users. Kelly rides with Hiller's 20-year-old son and had her own experience of injustice. Her husband, Chuck Kelly, still couldn't walk more than 100 feet without pain after a crash in January 2014. A truck driver plowed into Chuck while dangerously passing a Naples cycling group. Her husband counted more than 20 broken bones and faced lifelong pain. The driver received a $170 ticket. No court appearance required.
|Collier Commissioner Georgia Hiller teamed up with Tish Kelly and Jeff Michelland to seek better legal protections statewide for vulnerable users after seeing what her 20-year-old son, George Hiller, faces on the roads while riding in Southwest Florida. Hiller spearheaded an anti-harassment law of vulnerable users in Collier County, the first of its kind in the state.(News-Press Photo: Submitted)|
They exchanged contacts. Shortly after, Michelland, Kelly and Hiller arranged to meet at Starbucks in Naples to brainstorm.
Hiller recalls licking her chops at the idea a prosecutor could help draft legislation. They knew there was a problem, they just need to find the best way to solve it.
"You're the man for the job," Hiller remembers telling Michelland.
|The aftermath of a July crash that injured five cyclists in Fort Myers Beach. The driver looks on as one of the cyclist tries to keep the most seriously injured cyclist alive. The crash was the impetus for a statewide bill to make drivers more accountable for harming vulnerable users.(Photo: Lee County Sheriff’s Office)|
•increase penalties and require mandatory court appearances for certain driving violations if they contribute to the harm of a vulnerable user.
•make it illegal for a motorist to cut off a vulnerable user when turning right.
•clarify the 3-foot rule, which law enforcement has said is hard to enforce in its current form, as being from the widest part of anything attached to the vehicle.
•make harassing a cyclist a misdemeanor.
•mandate driver education and testing on the legal rights and safety of vulnerable users.
Passidomo believes the bill relies on common sense to clear up ambiguities about sharing the road and would help reduce injuries.
"This is a tragedy that's happening all over the state," said Passidomo. "I read about it in The News-Press almost every day. We've got to find a good way to share the road lawfully and collaboratively, as opposed to antagonistically."
|Share the Road logo(Photo: news-press.com)|
"There are bad cyclists and runners just like there are bad drivers," said Tish Kelly. For years, she has volunteered to police the behaviors of other cyclists during group rides and has seen more compliance. "Everyone needs to adhere to the law."
Hiller also spearheaded the push to criminalize harassment of vulnerable road users in Collier County. In January, the law became the first of its kind in Florida. The county recognized Passidomo's bill as part of its legislative priorities. Hiller is working with the county lobbyist, as they seek a Senate sponsor. Hiller is hopeful sending a statewide message could also help attract tourists who want to run and walk in the Sunshine State without having to compromise their personal safety.
"They say law is like making sausage," said Hiller. "Well, not in our case. For us, it was filet mignon."
Share and learn about ideas to make the roads safer on The News-Press Facebook page, Share the Road Florida
Highlights from the House proposal:
•Defines the terms "vulnerable user" and "bodily injury."
• Amends the 3-foot law by including any part of or attachment to the motor vehicle, anything extending from the motor vehicle, and any trailer or other thing being towed by the motor vehicle.
• Makes it illegal for a person operating a vehicle who overtakes and passes a vulnerable user proceeding in the same direction to make a right turn at an intersection or into a private road or driveway unless the turn can be made at a safe distance.
• Permits a driver to cross a double yellow line when passing a vulnerable user in order to provide at least 3 feet.
• Makes it a misdemeanor to harass, taunt or maliciously throw an object at or in the direction of a person riding a bicycle.
• Defines "substandard-width lane" in bicycle regulations statute.
• Increases penalties and requires mandatory court appearance for careless driving, violation of the 3-foot law; and violation of the new right-turn law, if the violation contributed to the bodily injury of a vulnerable user, and requires the law enforcement officer issuing the citation for the violation to note such information on the citation;
• Mandates driver education and traffic law education courses provide instruction on laws about the rights and safety of vulnerable users.
• Mandates driver license examinations include testing on laws relating to vulnerable users.
Connect with this reporter: @Janinezeitlin (Twitter).