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Thoughts at a Workshop On Replacing CA’s Gas Tax With a Mileage Fee

In 2017, California plans to pilot a new mileage-based Road User Charge designed to potentially replace the current state gas tax. Photo Wikimedia

Earlier this week, I attended a California Sustainable Transportation Funding Workshop, hosted by Caltrans, Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), the California Transportation Commission (CTC), and the Mileage-Based User Fee Alliance (MBUFA). The half-day program focused on how the state of California could shift from our current gas tax funding stream to one based on a per-mile fee.

Let me first say that I usually mostly hang out with a bunch of left-of-center city people like me; we get around mostly by bicycling and walking. My friends and colleagues tend to support the idea of a per-mile fee, because we expect that it could help motivate people to drive less, and use other modes more.

This workshop wasn’t populated by a bunch of people like me. I don’t think anyone else arrived there by bicycle. As far as I could tell, it was primarily people who are more mainstream: people who drive and who, for the foreseeable future, expect our car-centric transportation system to look more or less like it does now. Among the program’s sponsors was the libertarian Reason Foundation.

What was interesting about the workshop was where the left and the right agreed: gas tax revenues aren’t enough to cover transportation infrastructure costs, and per-mile fees could work better. Similar right-left agreements occur with some Shoup-inspired parking reforms and Express Lane toll programs.

California's Gas Tax

In 1994, California’s Gas Tax was set at 18 cents per gallon. It remains unchanged today, but, due to inflation, that 18 cents is now worth about 11 cents. Graph via Caltrans

Speakers at the conference set the stage by describing the situation, which they described as “The Federal & California Financial Cliff.” The federal gas tax is 18.4 cents per gallon. The California gas tax is an additional 18 cents per gallon. These amounts were set in the early 1990s. Unlike percentage-based sales taxes, which fluctuate with price changes, the gas tax remains at a flat rate. Since the ’90s, inflation has effectively reduced California’s gas tax to its lowest inflation-adjusted level since California gas taxes began in 1923.

Gas taxes are dedicated to be spent on transportation only. As the gas taxes lose value over time, governmental transportation budgets are increasingly subsidized by other taxes paid by everyone, including sales taxes, property taxes, etc. Recent estimates show that only about half of overall transportation funding is paid for by dedicated gas tax revenues. To some extent, this is fair: even non-drivers derive some benefits from highways, because everyone buys goods shipped by truck. The unfair aspect of this system is that non-drivers’ taxes go, in part, to freeways that non-drivers do not use.

Transportation leaders are generally aware that general funds subsidize transportation expenditures, but many drivers assume that driving-based taxes are what pays for roads. Many drivers, though already subsidized by non-drivers, still think they’re paying too much.

There are at least three more factors that influence the gas-tax-income vs. transportation-expenditures mismatch.  Read more…

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Replacing LOS: CA Hones Details on Its New Transportation Planning Metric

New rules proposed by the California Office of Planning and Research are hoped to accelerate the state’s decline in driving seen in recent years. Image via Caltrans

Agreeing on a new way to measure transportation impacts — and not just delays for drivers — is no simple task for California’s planning policymakers.

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR) is fine-tuning its proposal to replace  Level of Service, the metric recently ditched by the state which focused exclusively on car delays, by creating a new metric called Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT), which measures how much driving is expected to be generated by a new development. Basically, when development and transportation projects are analyzed under the California Environmental Quality Act, they must no longer be judged solely on how many seconds of delay they cause drivers.

OPR has held a series of workshops and a webinar to explain the issues to city planners and other interested parties, but some public commentary shows that confusion and uncertainty reign.

Responses to the proposal so far have ranged from supportive to vehemently critical, but the harshest criticisms include inaccuracies about the intent of SB 743, the legislation mandating the LOS/VMT change.

OPR has extended its deadline for public comments about its Preliminary Discussion Draft of CEQA Guidelines [PDF] until November 21. Comments can be submitted by email.

In August, OPR released its proposal to replace LOS with VMT, following last year’s adoption of SB 743, which mandated the change. VMT looks at the entire lengths of car trips a project might generate — not just the number of vehicles making their way through an intersection. It gives a more accurate assessment of the environmental impact of travel induced by a project. Planners also say it’s easier to model VMT than to measure LOS, since the models involve fewer complicated assumptions they tend to be more accurate. Many jurisdictions already measure vehicle miles traveled as part of their efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Read more…

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Brown Vetoes Road User Safety Laws Including Hit-and-Run, Vulnerable User

Jose Vasquez leaves a candle at the ghost bike memorial for Andy Garcia, killed in a vicious hit-and-run last year.  Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Jose Vasquez leaves a candle at the ghost bike memorial for Andy Garcia, killed in a vicious hit-and-run last year. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

In the last hours before the deadline for signing legislation from this year’s legislative session, California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a batch of bills that could have improved safety for bicyclists, pedestrians, and other road users.

Included in the list of today’s vetoes are three bills addressing the problem of hit-and-run crimes. Two of them would have increased penalties for convictions, and one would have made it easier to catch hit-and-run perpetrators. This brings to a total of four bills on the issue that passed both houses of the legislature with very few no votes—some unanimously—only to end up on the governor’s chopping block.

The governor’s general objection to creating new crime categories and increasing penalties was his excuse for declining these bills.

For similar reasons, Brown also vetoed Assemblymember Mark Levine’s “vulnerable user” bill that would have defined bicyclists and pedestrians, and a few other groups, as a special category of road users, and raised fines for conviction of violations that result in injury to them.

Another bill vetoed today was one that would have assessed a violation point against a driver’s record if convicted of using a cell phone or texting while driving. A second provision of the bill, requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to include at least one question on the driver’s license exam addressing the dangers of distracted driving, may happen anyway. Brown, in his veto message [PDF], writes that he has directed the DMV to add such a question.

Here’s a full list of bills that would have made the roads safer that were axed by the Governor:

  • Assembly Bill 2337, from Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona), which would have increased the automatic driver’s license suspension for a hit-and-run conviction from one to two years. Governor Brown vetoed this bill last week, writing that he thought current penalties seemed appropriate—thus hinting that he would be likely to veto the others as well.
  • A.B. 1532, from Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), which would have required an automatic six-month license suspension for anyone convicted of a hit-and-run collision in which a person was hit, whether that person was injured or not. Assemblymember Gatto’s intent was to enforce the notion that people must stop when they are involved in a crash, no matter what. The governor disagreed, citing his usual reluctance to create new categories of crime and stiffen penalties. “I don’t find sufficient justification for creating a new crime when no injury to person or property occurred. I think the current law is adequate,” says his veto message [PDF].
  • A.B. 47, also from Gatto, which would have created a new “Yellow Alert” system, similar to the existing Amber Alert that broadcasts information about child abductions quickly throughout the state. The Yellow Alert would have broadcast descriptions of vehicles suspected of being involved in hit-and-run crimes using freeway changeable message signs and other outlets to help law enforcement apprehend criminals who leave the scene of a collision. Governor Brown refused to sign this bill because of another bill, which he did sign, that adds developmentally disabled people to the groups for which the Amber Alert system can be used. “This expansion should be tested before adding more categories of individuals that could overload the system,” he wrote [PDF]. It’s doubtful that the families and friends of hit-and-run victims would agree that this wait-and-see approach is sensible.
  • A.B. 2673, from Assemblymember Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), which would have removed the possibility of a civil compromise in the case of a hit-and-run conviction. Assemblymember Bradford wanted to remove this loophole that allows people with expensive lawyers to get off the hook for criminal prosecution if they make up with the injured party. Governor Brown’s concern, according to his veto message [PDF], is the backlog of court cases in the state, with this law removing a “means for parties to settle their disputes outside the criminal court system.”
  • A.B. 2398, from Mark Levine (D-San Rafael), which would have raised fines for violations when certain “vulnerable road users,” including bicyclists and pedestrians, were injured as a result of the violation. Brown’s veto message reads: “I think the current laws are sufficient.” [PDF]
  • A.B. 1646, from Assemblymember Jim Frazier (D-Oakley), which would have added a point to a driver’s record for using a cell phone or texting while driving. The governor, yet again, disagreed that the bill was necessary to curb cell phone use and texting while driving [PDF]. He would rather wait until the DMV finishes an analysis of its data on distracted driving than enact this safety measure.

Email tips, alerts, press releases, ideas, etc. about transportation in California to melanie@streetsblog.org.
For social media coverage focused on state-wide issues, follow Melanie @currymel on Twitter or like our Facebook page here.

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Governor Vetoes One of Four Hit-and-Run Bills; Deadline for Others: Today

hit and run

Glendale Police released a video showing a woman being struck by a car in a hit-and-run last week.

Governor Jerry Brown vetoed one of four hit-and-run bills passed by the California Senate and Assembly. A.B. 2337, by Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona), would have increased the automatic driver’s license suspension for a hit-and-run conviction from one to two years.

Despite near unanimous support in both houses of the legislature, Brown vetoed the bill on Thursday, writing in his veto message [PDF], “While I consider hit-and-run collisions to be very significant events, current penalties seem to be at appropriate levels.”

A.B. 2337 was one of four bills addressing the issue of hit-and-run crimes that the legislature passed this year; the other three have neither been signed nor vetoed as of this morning. Today is the deadline for the governor to sign bills from the current session.

Assemblymember Linder’s bill “would’ve given some real teeth to current hit-and-run penalties,” wrote Damian Kevitt in response to the veto. Kevitt was seriously injured in 2013 in a hit-and-run collision. Since his crash he has been actively involved in campaigning for better laws and better enforcement of hit-and-runs through his organization, Finish the Ride–which was originally named after his personal goal of completing the ride he started on the day he was hit.

The driver of the car that dragged him on the freeway, broke multiple bones, and caused him to loose a leg has never been caught.

“The current penalties for hit and runs are scaled based on severity of injury of the hit, not the fact of having made a conscious decision to run from the scene in the first place. This makes about as much sense as penalizing someone for DUI based on their blood alcohol level instead of for … having made that moral choice to recklessly drive drunk in the first place,” wrote Kevitt.

Drivers involved in hit and runs often act out of fear of being prosecuted not just for the collision but also for something else, such as driving without a license or driving under the influence. Kevitt points out that, “if they’re ever caught, usually the penalties … are mitigated to save legal time and money, meaning perpetrators can in some cases get off with only a fine and no felony record — not exactly what I would call proper justice.”

“I’d like to give Governor Brown the benefit of the doubt and hope that [his staff has] severely underplayed the epidemic of hit and runs occurring throughout the state,” he wrote.

Meanwhile, Kevitt’s organization, Finish the Ride, is working with the California Bicycle Coalition, LACBC, and “other like-minded organizations,” to “galvanize a maelstrom of well-informed citizens” to convince the governor to sign the other hit-and-run bills on his desk:

  • A.B. 1532, from Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles): would require an automatic six-month license suspension for anyone convicted of a hit-and-run collision in which a person was hit, whether that person is injured or not.
  • A.B. 47, also from Gatto: would allow law enforcement authorities to use existing alert systems to broadcast information about vehicles suspected of being involved in a hit-and-run collision, to help catch perpetrators.
  • A.B. 2673, from Assemblymember Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), would remove the possibility of a civil compromise in the case of a hit-and-run conviction.

Email tips, alerts, press releases, ideas, etc. about California transportation to melanie@streetsblog.org.

For social media coverage focused on statewide issues, follow Melanie @currymel on Twitter or like our Facebook page here.

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Governor Brown Signs Protected Bike Lane Bill, Car Fee for Bike Paths

Governor Brown recently approved A.B. 1193, which would allow protected bike lanes, like this one on 3rd Street in Long Beach, CA, to be more easily implemented throughout California. Photo: Joe Linton, Streetsblog LA

Governor Jerry Brown signed two bills on Saturday that will make it easier for California cities to build better bike infrastructure.

The governor approved Assembly Bill 1193, which means protected bike lanes, or cycletracks, will become an official part of Caltrans’ guidelines on bike infrastructure. Brown also signed Senate Bill 1183, which will allow local governments to use a vehicle surcharge to pay for bike paths and bike facility maintenance.

State to Create Standards Supporting Protected Bike Lanes

A.B. 1193, by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), will require Caltrans to create engineering standards for protected bike lanes, which until now have been discouraged by a complex approval processes and a lack of state guidance. This new class of lane — called cycletracks, or “class IV bikeways,” in Caltrans terms — are separated from motor traffic using a physical barrier, such as curbs, planters, or parked cars.

Protected bike lanes have been shown to increase the number of people bicycling on them, to make cyclists feel safer, and to decrease the number of wrong-way and sidewalk riders on streets that have them.

The new law will also allow cities and counties to build cycletracks without consulting Caltrans, unless the facilities are built on state highways. California cities that build protected bike lanes will have the option of using the standards to be developed by Caltrans or some other generally accepted standards, sparing them from Caltrans’ arduous approval process.

Locals Can Now Pass Vehicle Fees to Build and Maintain Bikeways

Read more…

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Governor Brown Signs Bill Allowing 3-Bike Racks on Some Buses in CA

Under a new law California law, transit agencies are now allowed greater use of racks that carry three bikes, like this one on L.A. Metro’s Orange Line BRT. Photo by Ensie via Flickr

California transit agencies are now allowed greater use of bus-mounted bike racks that hold three bicycles. Governor Jerry Brown signed A.B. 2707 Tuesday, a bill authored Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park) to allow 40-foot-long buses to be equipped with folding bike racks that can carry up to three bikes.

It was the first bill signed by the governor this year that’s on Streetsblog’s unofficial watch list of bills related to sustainable transportation.

Current law restricts the length of vehicles on California roads to a maximum length of 40 feet. An exception was created for AC Transit in the Bay Area, after legislation was passed several years ago to allow the agency to exceed the length limit when it added three-bike racks to the front of its buses.

Another bill in the most recent legislative session was aimed at creating a similar exception for Santa Cruz, but it was dropped when L.A. Metro came forward with A.B. 2707 to change the law throughout the state. Metro will soon receive a large order of 40-foot buses, and thanks to the new law, will be able to expand its bike-carrying capacity on the majority of its fleet.

“It’s a major, major gain. I’m terrifically happy this made it through the system,” said Bart Reed of the Transit Coalition, which had been pushing local legislators to address the issue since 2012“If a bus only comes by every half hour, then there’s only space for four bikes every hour. People were being left stranded. This bill will enhance capacity by another half.”

A sticking point in 2012 was pushback from operator unions, who wanted a say in when and how the longer bike racks are used. Until now, exceptions to the 40-foot rule have allowed three-bike racks on buses up to 60 feet long, but only after approval from a Route Review Committee that must include representatives of the transit agency, the driver’s union, and an engineer.

“The Route Review Committee is required to convene and unanimously approve every route for triple bike racks,” said Michael Turner of Metro. “Our concern is that we have over 100 bus routes, with over 2,000 buses in service. We want to work with our operators, but it’s not good policy to give them veto authority; it’s also not practical, given the size of our operations.”

Since Metro the Route Review Committee requirement has only been applied to 45- and 60-foot buses, the agency decided to focus its legislation on allowing three-bike racks on the 40-foot buses that will make up about half of their fleet once the new buses are delivered.

“Bike use has been growing, and we’ve seen more demand, especially on our rail system,” said Turner.

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CA Tackles the Question: What Is a “Disadvantaged Community”?

Workshop attendees discuss what makes a project eligible for cap-and-trade funds. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

Workshop attendees discuss what makes a project eligible for cap-and-trade funds. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

In a packed, airless room last night in Oakland, several hundred people grappled with the question of how to define “disadvantaged communities” in California that shoulder the heaviest burden of pollution.

The workshop was led by the California Air Resources Board and the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA) to gather input on the question. The room was packed with experts and advocates from a wide variety of fields — from emissions, to housing, to transit, to recycling — and there may even have been a few members of disadvantaged communities present. The meeting was the final of three in this round, following two held recently in Fresno and Los Angeles.

The question of how to define a disadvantaged community is not merely an academic one. Potentially billions of dollars are at stake from pollution credits collected under the state’s cap-and-trade system. By law, a portion of that revenue must be spent in, or for the benefit of, “disadvantaged communities.”

The mayors of Richmond, Oakland, and Berkeley showed up, as did state Senator Loni Hancock. Invited to speak briefly, each brought up local concerns, with Oakland’s Mayor Jean Quan quipping: “We’re probably all going to say the same thing.”

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin addresses the workshop on defining “disadvantaged communities” that will benefit from cap-and-trade funds. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

Indeed, each mayor pointed out communities in their areas that bear a heavy pollution burden but did not show up on the preliminary maps of disadvantaged communities produced by CalEPA. Quan said she was surprised that several areas in Oakland were left out, including low-income tracts along the heavily traveled 880 corridor and East Oakland.

Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, noting her city lays claim to the state’s largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, the Chevron oil refinery, added, “Our community has shouldered the burden of pollution and subsequent health impacts for 100-plus years. Those communities that suffer the most should be put front and center—not in the back, not in an appendix–for getting the resources that we need.”

Those preliminary maps, included in the ninety-plus pages of materials passed out at the workshops, were developed by the state’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment as part of CalEnviroScreen. This was presented at the workshop as the state’s chosen tool for defining disadvantaged communities. It combines twelve pollution factors (such as ozone, diesel emissions, and groundwater threats) with seven population factors that studies have found make people more vulnerable to the effects of pollution (for example, asthma rates and poverty). The data is available at the census tract level so the information can be mapped at a fairly detailed level.

It’s a groundbreaking tool resulting from years of work, and is an impressive achievement. But as evidenced by the mayors’ remarks, it’s also just a starting point.

Read more…

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California Legislation Watch: End-of-Session Update

Screen Shot 2014-05-02 at 4.34.24 PMHere is Streetsblog’s weekly highlight of California legislation related to sustainable transportation.

A substantial crop of bills relating to safe and sustainable streets successfully wended its way through this year’s legislative session. Governor Jerry Brown has until September 30 to sign the following bills so they become law in January 2015. Alternatively, he can veto them–or ignore them. If he lets them languish until after the deadline, they will die on their own.

Hit-and-run crimes:

A.B. 47, Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles): Would create a statewide Yellow Alert system for hit-and-run crimes.

A.B. 1532, also from Gatto: Would require an automatic license suspension for hit-and-run convictions in which a person was hit, no matter how light the injury.

A.B. 2673, Assemblymember Steven Bradford (D-Gardena): A civil compromise with the victim would no longer release a driver from criminal prosecution for hit-and-run crimes.

A.B. 2337, Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona): Would extend license suspension for felony and misdemeanor hit-and-run convictions from one to two years.

Bicycles:

Read more…

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Bill Streamlining Protected Bike Lanes in CA Awaits Governor’s Signature

With Governor Brown’s approval, protected bike lanes like these ones on San Francisco’s Market Street could become easier for cities to build. Photo: Melanie Curry/Streetsblog

A bill that would make it easier for California cities to build protected bike lanes was passed by both houses of the state legislature this week and only awaits Governor Jerry Brown’s signature.

The bill, A.B. 1193, was authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) and sponsored by the California Bicycle Coalition.

The bill serves several purposes. First and foremost, it requires Caltrans to establish engineering standards for protected bike lanes or “cycletracks,” a new category of bike lanes for cities to use.

At the same time, it removes a provision in the law that requires that any bike lane built in California adhere to Caltrans specifications, even if it is built on a local street that is not under Caltrans’ jurisdiction. This frees up local jurisdictions to choose other guidelines, such as the National Association of City Transportation Officials’ (NACTO) Urban Bikeway Design Guide, if the Caltrans standards do not adequately address local conditions.

Caltrans endorsed the NACTO Urban Street Design Guide earlier this year but has not adopted it, meaning that cities that want to build separated bike lanes must still go through a process to get an exemption.

Last-minute negotiations on the bill addressed concerns about liability by adding several conditions that have to be met before non-Caltrans criteria can be used. A “qualified engineer” must review and sign off on a protected bike lane project, the public must be duly notified, and alternative criteria must “adhere to guidelines established by a national association of public agency transportation official,” which means the NACTO guidelines would could be used whether Caltrans has officially adopted them or not.

And unfortunately for lay people, Caltrans balked at removing its convention of naming bike lane types by “class” and numeral, saying it is just too embedded in its documents. So the new protected bike lanes category would be officially named “Class IV Bikeways,” adding to Class I Bikeways (bike paths or shared use paths), Class II bikeways (bike lanes), and Class III bikeways (bike routes). Memorize that.

“We’re very excited to have gotten to this point after months of harder-than-expected negotiations and stalwart support from Phil Ting,” said Dave Snyder of the California Bicycle Coalition. ”He really wants to see protected bikeways get more popular.”

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Four CA Hit-and-Run Bills Await Governor Brown’s Signature

Hit-and-runs have been a problem in California for a long time. In this 1973 publicity still, Adam 12′s fictional television LAPD officers investigate a hit-and-run. Four bills to curb these crimes await Governor Brown’s approval. Photo: Wikipedia

Four bills targeting hit-and-run crimes in California await Governor Jerry Brown’s signature, including two from Assemblymember Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles), who has made hit-and-runs a focus this year. The bills have passed both houses of the California legislature and are awaiting the governor’s signature.

One, a late addition to the legislative calendar (A.B. 47), would allow law enforcement authorities to broadcast information about vehicles suspected of being involved in a hit-and-run collision using the existing “Amber” alert system, which notifies the public about child abductions via changeable message signs on freeways across the state.

The system is strictly limited to avoid its overuse, and the Senate made amendments to the bill to further tightened restrictions. The new “Yellow” alerts would only be allowed when a hit-and-run has caused a serious injury or death. There has to be at least a partial description of the vehicle and its license plate available, and there must be a chance that making the information public will help catch the suspect and protect the public from further harm.

Another Gatto bill, A.B. 1532, would require an automatic six-month license suspension for anyone convicted of a hit-and-run collision in which a person was hit. Currently, consequences for leaving the scene of a crash are light if the victim has less than serious injuries, but someone who drives away can claim not to know how badly the victim was hurt. With this law, anyone who drives away and gets caught will face more serious consequences just for the act of leaving.

Meanwhile, the bill from Assemblymember Steven Bradford (D-Gardena), A.B. 2673, which would remove the possibility of a civil compromise in the case of a hit-and-run conviction, has also passed both houses of the legislature and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

Current law allows someone convicted of a hit-and-run to avoid criminal prosecution if they come to an agreement with the victim of the collision, and this bill removes that possibility.

Yet another bill, A.B. 2337 from Assemblymember Eric Linder (R-Corona), would extend the period of time that a driver’s license is suspended for a hit-and-run conviction from one to two years. This would apply to anyone caught and convicted of a hit-and-run that caused the death or serious injury of another person.

If stiffer penalties can make people think twice about leaving the scene of a crash, then these bills may well help reduce the incidence of hit-and-runs. As long as people believe they can escape the consequences, however, the heavier penalties may not act as a deterrent. But combined with a new system that will broadcast a car’s description and license plate for all to see, it will be more difficult to escape.

As Assemblymember Gatto said, “Together, these bills will empower the public to help us catch hit-and-run drivers before they can cover up the evidence of their crimes and ensure the perpetrators of these cowardly acts think twice before leaving fellow citizens dying on the side of the road.”