- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - Several people asked North Dakota lawmakers on Friday to reject Republican-backed legislation they say would allow drivers to run down Dakota Access oil pipeline protesters and other activists without consequence.

The bill would exempt drivers from liability if they unintentionally injure or kill a pedestrian obstructing traffic on a public road. The proposal is among several spawned by the ongoing protests against the four-state, $3.8 billion pipeline that drew thousands of protesters this summer to an encampment near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.

“It would send a clear and unequivocal message to some very bad people that vehicular homicide is welcome in the state of North Dakota,” Andrew Varvel of Bismarck told the House Transportation Committee.

Varvel was among about 10 people who testified against the legislation during the hearing at the Capitol, where the North Dakota Highway Patrol increased patrols in and outside the building on Friday because of interest in the hearing. Outside, several people waived signs in opposition to the bill.

Republican Rep. Keith Kempenich of Bowman has said he crafted the bill after his 72-year-old mother-in-law was blocked by pipeline protesters waiving signs on a roadway. On Friday, Kempenich told the committee that his proposal does not impact pedestrians who are following the law and not interfering with traffic.

Committee member Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, said the bill isn’t aimed at preventing protests, but rather at protecting people “who are caught up on a roadway and are blocked by a mob and fear for their life and need to try and extricate themselves from that situation.”

Tom Asbridge of Bismarck told the committee that he had no position on the pipeline but called the legislation “shameful.”

“It smacks of prejudice, racism and personal animosity,” he said.

Ruth Buffalo of Fargo testified that the legislation would allow drivers to get away with vehicular homicide, asking: “Who are you going to believe, the dead or the living?”

The committee will decide later whether to endorse the measure. The full House will consider the bill later.

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