The Brookhaven City Council on Oct. 13 unanimously passed a “vulnerable road user” ordinance that aims to help pedestrian and cyclist safety, though Councilmember Joe Gebbia worried the penalties for drivers are too stiff.

The ordinance outlines safe practices for drivers and pedestrians and increases penalties for drivers who cause an injury to “a vulnerable road user,” which is anyone using the roads who are not in cars, such as walkers, cyclists and skateboarders. It is set to take effect Jan. 1, 2021.

In November 2019, Dunwoody became the first municipality in the state to enact a VRU law, said Bruce Hagen, an attorney with Bike Law, a nonprofit that promotes cyclist safety. Part of the goal of VRU ordinances is to increase awareness for driving safety around pedestrians and cyclists, Hagen told the Brookhaven council during an Oct. 4 meeting.

Under the ordinance, drivers must yield to pedestrians and other “vulnerable road users” when making a turn and allow at least 3 feet when passing them. Cyclists must ride as far to the right side of the road as possible, yield to pedestrians and “give an audible signal” before passing pedestrians. Cyclists must also have a white light in the front of their bike and a red reflector at the back when riding at night.

For a driver to be charged under the ordinance, pedestrians must follow all traffic laws and walk on the shoulder or outer edge of the road facing traffic if there’s not a sidewalk.

Councilmember Madeleine Simmons, who sponsored the ordinance, said it provides “enhanced protections” for walkers and other vulnerable road users, which she said is especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic when more people have been walking or biking.

A previous version of the ordinance included that pedestrians should wear bright or reflective clothing at night, but Simmons said that requirement “put unnecessary requirements on potential victims.”

For the first violation of the ordinance, a driver may be fined up to $500. For a second offense, a driver may be fined up to $1,000 or face six months in jail. Those penalties would be waived if the driver takes a driver safety and pedestrian awareness class.

Gebbia said having high penalties “right out of the box” defeats the purpose of the ordinance — to educate drivers about pedestrian and cyclist safety. He proposed taking out the penalties or only having them for habitual violators.

“We need to make sure we’re helping to change the behavior with an extended period of warnings before we penalize heavily,” Gebbia said during the meeting.

Councilmember Linley Jones said she supports the ordinance with its penalties because by the time a driver violates the ordinance more than once, they may have already caused harm to other people using the roads. The initial fine would be a deterrent for future violations, she said.

Simmons said an education campaign for the public and for police officers will happen before and after the ordinance goes into effect, which is also noted in the ordinance.

City Attorney Chris Balch said taking out the penalties creates “a code section that is toothless.”

“There’s nothing for police officers to enforce,” Balch said in the meeting.

The ordinance passed as written, but Gebbia indicated he would like to see it amended at a future date.

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