Closing the Hit-and-Run Loophole

Bicycle Colorado’s advocacy team helped change Colorado law to increase penalties for leaving the scene in 2012

Ernie Stefely can still describe the crash in vivid detail: the feeling of force, like being pushed into an airplane seat on takeoff, a glimpse of headlight, the impact with the bumper, the windshield, the SUV’s roof, then landing head-first on the asphalt.

"And then, he drives away," Stefely said.

On Feb. 20, 2007, Stefely was hit by a car driven by Ken Ambrose while commuting home on his bike. He was just a mile from home, riding down a hill in a well-marked bike lane with more lights on his bicycle than the law requires.

"There was no question in my mind the man had been drinking," Stefely said. "My wife did research and learned he had a prior DUI. He came forward two weeks later, well after a test would have shown what his blood alcohol level was."

It's every bicyclist's nightmare, and the top reason people cite when asked why they don't ride a bike, especially to commute to work, to school or to run errands.

"Hit and run is harder to prosecute when it involves a bicyclist or pedestrian because there is typically no significant damage to the car compared to a car-to-car crash," said Dan Grunig, Bicycle Colorado executive director. "If they leave the scene, it’s harder to catch them."

The Hit-and-Run Loophole

The possible penalty in 2007 for leaving the scene of an accident with serious bodily injury: a class 5 felony with possible penalties of one to three years in prison. The possible penalty for causing the same injuries while driving drunk: a class 4 felony with possible penalties for three to six years in prison.

In other words, a person convicted of hurting someone by hitting them with a vehicle and leaving the scene—drunk or sober—could receive a lighter sentence than if he or she stayed, rendered aid, and was convicted of driving under the influence and causing the same.

"We feel extensive frustration and disappointment when we hear these stories about people's actions that lead to getting others hurt and them not taking responsibility for it," Grunig said. "We need to get the message out that you have to stop and call for help."

Brad Tucker is a member of the Bicycle Colorado board. He's also an attorney who specializes in representing bicyclists. The first time he met Ernie Stefely was in the hospital days after the crash.

"He looked like a cartoon character," Tucker recalled. "He was bandaged up, casted up, every limb was in traction on ropes and pulleys."

The crash had left Stefely with a series of broken bones: clavicle, scapula, ribs, vertebrae, pelvis. He was in the hospital for three weeks, then in a hospital bed for a month at home. It took him over a year to get back to normal.

"I didn't have an acute awareness of the problem of there being an incentive for someone to leave the scene if they had been drinking until Ernie's case," Tucker said. "I see things in my practice that seem so unjust, and I want to change them. I see firsthand how the application of existing law does not adequately and justly affect cyclists."

Share the Road

The criminal case against Ambrose took over a year to finish. At the end, he received a 30-day sentence in exchange for a guilty plea and spent 14 days of it on work release. He also received probation and lost his driver’s license for a year.

In a clever turn. Stefely's wife Laurie Thornton, suggested that Ambrose also be made to put Share the Road license plates on his car and pay to have Share the Road signs posted on Quaker Street.

"I believe things would have turned out very differently (for Ambrose) if he had done the right and socially responsible thing," Stefely said. "Instead, he ran."

Tucker also brought a civil lawsuit against Ambrose—who was driving a company car when he hit Stefely—which was "settled to Ernie and Laurie’s satisfaction."

But, Tucker said, the law still needed to change.

Conti, Fields Run the Bill

Every year, Bicycle Colorado seeks out ideas for changing Colorado laws to improve safety and access for people riding bicycles.

"Bicyclists need to have a voice, which is why our legislative advocacy program is so important," Grunig said. "No one is going to stand up for us but us. The thousands of people who have joined Bicycle Colorado are giving us the ability to seek equality in our laws and make Colorado an even better place to ride bicycles."

In 2011, Bicycle Colorado approached state representative Rhonda Fields and state senator Kathleen Conti about running a bill to increase potential penalties to equal those of DUI.

At that time, the family of Timothy Albo was also speaking with the legislators about the same issue. Albo became disabled after being struck by a car in October 2010 while crossing the street in a crosswalk. Albo's story, the prosecution of the driver—who had left the scene—and the family’s cry for stronger penalties was making headlines.

The time was ripe to change the law.

"We always try to work on both sides of the aisle," Grunig said. "By seeking bill sponsors in both parties, we think it makes better laws. We worked with Rep. Fields, who is a democrat, and Sen. Conti, who is a republican, and lawyers to come up with the language of the bill."

Tucker, who helped draft the changes, said it was important to know that Bicycle Colorado had the political wherewithal to change the law.

"I've seen the political clout of cyclists consistently growing during the past decade," he said. "Bicycle Colorado's credibility as a progressive, fair-playing organization has grown considerably as well. We have the attention of people we used to not have."

Fields and Conti introduced the bill in the 2012 Colorado legislative session. Stefely and wife Thornton testified on its behalf.

"I was never so scared to talk to someone in my life," he said. "Here I was, talking about bicycling and what happened to me. I rehearsed, but even then I found myself choking up. But I decided to do it for Colorado."

Despite concerns about potential fiscal impact in a tight financial year, the bill passed. Stefely, Thornton, and Grunig were on hand when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed it into law in June 2012. The governor gave Stefely the pen he used to sign it.

"I'm stunned and can’t believe I could play such an important role," he said.

Worth the Work

Tucker said he loves working with Bicycle Colorado because of the leadership's ability to identify and make change. He said working on closing the hit-and-run loophole was rewarding well beyond what he thought it would be.

"The change we made doesn't mean that every drunk person who causes injury is going to stop, call and render aid," Tucker said. "Their judgment is already impaired. They’ve already done the wrong thing. In my mind, as we worked on this bill, I knew that even if it changes only one scenario, if one person stays to see if the person needs help and at minimum calls an ambulance instead of leaving the scene, it’s worth the work."

Stefely, a self-proclaimed outdoor enthusiast who moved to Colorado from Chicago "because I discovered you could ride your bicycle on the expressway," has been back on his bike full force since about a year after the crash. In June 2010, he rode from Denver to Aspen in a 300k endurance race. He owns 12 bicycles, including a tandem he and Thornton ride occasionally while towing their Corgies in a trailer.

He no longer commutes to work regularly, but in the summer he sometimes rides on the bike path to his Commerce City office from north Golden.

"I'm not one bit traumatized by what happened to me,” he said. “I ride not for fitness. I ride because it’s just fun."