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Effort to make roads safer wins bipartisan support

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and Gov. Jay Inslee say they are backing a package of new laws aimed at protecting workers, pedestrians and commuters.

New bills would include reducing the blood alcohol concentration limit for operating a vehicle when driving, imposing more restrictions on high-risk drivers and requiring a skills course for young and older drivers.

Amber Weilert, a mother from Parkland, described how her son was struck and killed in a crosswalk while riding his bicycle.

"I am here to be Michael's voice to support him and make sure that this doesn't happen again," Weilert said.

She asked lawmakers to think about her son and pleaded with lawmakers to make roads safer.

Lawmakers from both parties expressed support.

"I'm here because safety isn't a partisan issue. It's about all of us working together," said Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima. "When you look at a list of bills that are here. Most of them may have a Democratic sponsor, but I can tell you there are numerous Republican names right behind it," he said.

The coalition backing the package includes: Inslee, Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, King, Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, Sen. John Lovick, D-Mill Creek, and Rep. Sharlett Mena, D-Tacoma.

Many roads in Washington, like the one in Parkland where young Michael Wielert died, do not have sidewalks for pedestrians and cyclists to use, according to bill advocates, and that puts people at risk.

"Our transportation system is not safe. People from all communities across the state of Washington are being injured and killed at unacceptably high rates. We cannot be numb or complacent to this," said Kelsey Mesher, the Deputy Director of the Transportation Choices Coalition.

Inslee's proposed 2023-25 budget includes $3 million to build nine crosswalk signals along SR-7, including Pacific Avenue in Parkland where Weilert's son died.

The highest number of traffic-related fatalities Washington has seen since 1990 were recorded in 2022 when traffic accidents claimed 745 people.

"We have a team assembled here behind me, and I believe that the state Legislature this year will take significant steps to reduce this carnage on our highways," Inslee said. "At least half of the deaths on our roadways are caused by impaired people, which is not acceptable to see."

Senate Bill 5002, sponsored by Lovick, co-sponsored by Sen. Jim McCune, R-Graham, reduces the breath or blood alcohol concentration limit for operating a vehicle from 0.08 to 0.05. This includes driving under the influence of liquor, cannabis or any other drug.

"Drunk driving is a choice. You make a choice to drive drunk, and it should be embarrassing for all of us that we are losing one person every single day on our roads. By this time tomorrow, two people will be dead," Lovick said.

To enforce these laws, Inslee said it is essential to have more regional criminal justice training centers and more trained officers.

"We owe these people safety when they're taking care of our safety. We need additional law personnel to do the work that is necessary to remind people to be safe," Inslee said.

Senate Bill 5272, sponsored by Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, and cosponsored by King authorizes the use of speed safety camera systems in state highway work zones.

An additional bill, Senate Bill 5583, introduced by Liias, will require young drivers at the age of 18 to 25 to take driver's education courses. Young drivers are the most dangerous group of drivers, and lawmakers believe that a stronger emphasis on driver's education can reduce the number of accidents, he said.

Senate Bill 5560, introduced by Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, creates a program where an older driver may voluntarily surrender their driver's license before the expiration date to receive a new ID card at no cost. The bill defines an older driver as someone age 70 or older. The bill also authorizes the Department of Licensing to shorten the time period by which the driver's license of an older driver expires and allows the department to require older drivers to successfully complete a knowledge and skills refresher course.

Representatives from the Washington State Patrol, lawmakers, Inslee, construction workers and members of advocacy groups including Disability Rights Washington, WA Bikes, Transportation Choices Coalition, and labor representatives attended a press conference Jan. 26 in support of the slate of traffic safety bills.

"When we make roads safer for users, we particularly make them safe for people who walk and bike. And we're happy to have our partners and legislature and the governor's office to ensure people will get home safe," Lee Lambert, executive director of Washington Bikes and Cascade Bicycle Club, said.