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Sebastopol adopts law to help bicyclists, pedestrians


Sebastopol became the first city in Sonoma County and one of few in the nation to pass an ordinance that makes it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue drivers who threaten or harass them.

“It’s a way to send a message that people who are not in cars have rights too,” said Councilman Patrick Slayter. “Just because you are driving a 5,000-pound weapon doesn’t mean might makes right.”

The “vulnerable road users” ordinance was passed on a unanimous vote, paving the way for it to become law when it comes back for a second reading at a future meeting.

“Hate is hate, it doesn’t matter what it’s for, anything we can do to stop bullying,” said Vice Mayor Robert Jacob.

The ordinance is being promoted countywide by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, which says it will stem the number of incidents just by being on the books.

“The best laws we have are the ones that act as deterrents,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the bike coalition. “That has been the experience in Los Angeles. There have not been any suits filed and there has been a decline in reported incidents.”

The Sebastopol proposal is meant to provide a legal recourse by giving the ability to file a civil suit to pedestrians, cyclists, roller skaters, skateboarders and the impaired.

It is patterned after similar ordinances that have been adopted in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Sunnyvale and Washington, D.C.

The coalition and other local bicycle advocates began promoting the ordinance this summer after a series of fatal or serious-injury incidents involving vehicles and bicycles or pedestrians.

There are frequent reports that cyclists have been yelled at, slapped, had things thrown at them or dumped on them and been shot at, said Sandra Lupien, coalition director of outreach.

Bill Oetinger of Sebastopol, ride director for the Santa Rosa Cycling Club, called the harassment of cyclists “hate crimes” that leave riders shaken and sometimes hurt.

“No one should have to put up with it,” Oetinger said. “I don’t think the noncycling public is aware how much of it goes on.”

Jerry Meshulam of Sebastopol said that he has had people in pickups dump cups of soda on his head and throw cups at him.

“Is this ordinance going to stop that? Maybe not. The point is it gets the word out,” Meshulam said.

Linda Berg of Sebastopol, however, said she knows of cases where someone in a stopped car was run into by a skateboard rider and by a cyclist, neither of whom stopped.

“Some of the bicyclists and pedestrians are guilty of not using good sense,” Berg said. “I’m not sure putting the burden on the motorist is a good idea.”

Supporters say the proposed ordinance is intended to fill perceived gaps in criminal prosecution, which has a higher standard of proof and requires such things as positive identification of the driver.

The proposed ordinance defines what harassment is and sets up a procedure for an injured party, whether it is a cyclist, pedestrian, jogger or skateboard rider, to bring a lawsuit against an aggressor, which could be a motorist or even a cyclist.

Harassment is defined as attempted physical assault or physical assault; verbal threats of assault; intentional injury or attempts to injure; distracting or attempting to distract a bicyclist, pedestrian or others; forcing someone off the street; passing at an unsafe distance of less than 3 feet; and failing to yield to a pedestrian walking or running along a road.

You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or bob.norberg@pressdemocrat.com.

23 Responses to “Sebastopol adopts law to help bicyclists, pedestrians”

  1. SoCo Driver says:

    Just one more reason to avoid Sebastopol. Not a big loss. There is nothing there that you cannot get elsewhere.

  2. Rick says:

    Some “smart” attorney will find a way to sue the city of Sebastopol for not having a mechanism in place for detection and enforcement. They will wait a few month then file a class action lawsuit on behalf or all parties unknown, and settle for a few million in legal fees. Be careful what you wish for, the environmental movement figured that one out years ago. Victory is in the fees.

  3. homegirl says:

    I am accustomed to cyclists ignoring the rules of the road and I take extra caution to anticipate their general recklesness and obvious ignorance or disdain for the laws. But, I do have a question, is there any provision for me to sue a cyslists who, while riding on a pedestrian sidewalk hits me? Last week I was almosr run over by a cyclist riding on a sidewalk in downtown Santa Rosa. Could this person have been held responsible for any damages and medical bills?

  4. J Galt: “How on earth do you sue someone if you cannot identify them? Just wondering.”

    Mr. “Galt”: To the progressives in Sebastopol, the answer is crystal clear. Sue George Bush. Everything is his fault;

  5. Nora Gonzales says:

    I am sure the city council in Sebastopol now sleep much better now that they and they alone, have saving lives in their little burg with more nanny, feel good legislation.

    Now the reality check, how is this glorious new regulation going to be enforced? More bureaucratic socialist government go amuck as only small minded government can do.

  6. donna says:

    Well, as I see it a bicycle on a road is like hitch hiking on a freeway! There is not enough room. Today coming home near Graton I seen a woman ( who was not all there) riding her bicycle in the TURNING Lane??? I have had to cross over a double yellow line to keep from hitting a bicycle, on corners , hills blind spots. They ride 3 abreast in one lane and will not move. You have to get all the way in the other lane. They pull out in front of you as they are going pretty fast and need to turn left, no blinkers no warning just there! When a bicyclist gets hit it ALWAYS the cars falt, well no it is not!
    Every year I buy license for my car, I pay taxes to build the roads, do the bicyclist pay tax for the road? I think they need to build thier own lanes NOT connected to the roads. The walkays are built seperate from the roads, let them do that and have fun on your bicycle not at my expence!

  7. MendoTech says:

    Snarky wrote: . . . “Allow me to simply say that shouting “moron” at someone in anger is immature.”

    While I agree with your thought, even ‘immature’ free speech is still protected by the Constitution.

    Apparently with the exception of that ‘immature’ free speech uttered within the boundaries of Sebastopol.

    Back to topic: I really like the questions posed below as to who is going to enforce this nonsense law as well as how it will be handled in the courts.

    BTW, both my wife & I are bicyclists. The difference between the folks who have demanded and received this special treatment in Sebastopol and our riding appears to be our 100% adherence to ALL rules of the road, as well as a healthy respect for the motorists who pay taxes for upkeep of the roads.

  8. j galt says:

    How on earth do you sue someone if you cannot identify them? Just wondering!

  9. Snarky says:


    True enough.. free speech is free speech. UNTIL you cross the line where someone elses life is in danger.

    While I could educate you on the aspect of a specific legal line that free speech might cross in when it puts others lives in danger….

    Allow me to simply say that shouting “moron” at someone in anger is immature.

  10. Jamie Simon says:

    Ok, so I get the license of the car that almost hit me. Are the police going to respond to this “civil court case”? Most police dept. don’t get involved in civil situations. They are not in the business to investigate someones tort action. You are on your own. Gonna hire a private detective are you?

    How does the ped/rider get the reg’d owner info? Police won’t give it for liability reasons.

    Are you’all gonna knock on an unknown “offenders” door and ask them about their driving? What might there response be to your inquiry? “Go pound sand”. Are you prepared to defend yourself as they tell you to get off their property?

    If you get to civil court, and win a judgement, how will you collect? You might want to consider how you will squeeze something from nothing.

    Can you identify the offender?

    These are just a few of the questions I had when pondering this ordinance.

    Remember this only applies to city limits of Sebastopol. Good luck to you.

  11. RAW says:

    Sorry, typo, twice as thick, not think.

  12. RAW says:

    A suggestion for some out there, on the subject of cops and the vehicle code, may want to join the Coalition in becoming a reader. If you read all the applicable sections, including the EXEMPTIONS, you will see that the cops can speed, tail gate and run stop signs without their red lights on. I know, you dispute this because you read a single section. EXEMPTIONS are the key. I am very familiar with the Commecial Code for big rigs. The books of EXEMPTIONS are in a seperate book, twice as think as the Commercial Code book.

    Not to worry, no one can sit on a jury with felony convictions and someone who hates cops as bad as some people, have had some interesting experiences at the hands of those cops. Obvious is an understatement.

  13. MendoTech says:

    Yelling at some numbskull, whether bike rider, pedestrian or car driver is totally legal. There is this document called the “U.S. Constitution.” It, along with its amendments guaranty every person’s right to free speech. It does not limit the volume, nor application of that protected speech.

    I assume from the reasoning expressed by the Sebastopol City Council that the Constitution is suspended when entering their city. Good luck with that!

  14. Snarky says:

    Message to “RAW” :

    You posted, “Low brow non readers with no knowledge of the vehicle code, penal code or constitution.”

    Tell, us, sir…. how you bring the US or the CA Constitution into this matter? :) LOL

  15. RAW says:

    So the Coalition is officially a crybaby organization with no education. Low brow non readers with no knowledge of the vehicle code, penal code or constitution. No wonder they all ride bikes. Suspended licenses??? Sadly the council is their equal. Unanimous vote? Welcome to modern society where the government will fix your problems, over and over and over again.

    Everthing mentioned is already illegal except yelling. You can’t yell death threats but you can still call a moron a moron when they blow a stop sign or red light and nearly plow into you. They have finally achieved irrelovence. Congratulations.

  16. Snarky says:

    Personally, if I’m on a jury, and I have to make a decision of some bike rider being in the wrong or not….

    I promise… I will not hold that bike rider responsible for rolling through a stop sign until I see evidence that the deputy sheriff’s are held accountable near the court house for doing the same thing.

    Just the other night, while driving home from work northbound on Highway 101, I had some dangerous driver tailgaiting me. It was dark and I couldn’t see much other than headlights.

    It turned out as I moved over to allow that speeder to pass… it was a deputy sheriff in a marked patrol car.

    Now, for those of you who don’t know it, tailgaiting and speeding is illegal in CA. The cop was not dispatched as his lights nor siren were on. That meant CA traffic laws apply to him.

    Yet there he was… illegally and dangerously pushing his way through traffic because nobody could issue HIM a traffic citation.

    YES,,,,, when you are on a jury…. hold bike riders to the same standard as cops who violate the traffic laws. Which means equality… if cops get to speed and tail gate, allow the accused bike riders alone.

  17. Snarky says:

    Some people are so limited and shallow in their thinking, that they see this subject as a “liberal” vs. “conservative” debate.

    Again, way pathetic. What a shallow thinker.

  18. David says:

    I have video cameras in all of my vehicles. I intend to video every bicyclist I see on the road and report every traffic violation I see them make.

  19. Let me understand this clearly. If I am driving legally and sanely, and encounter one bicyclist who runs a red light, causing me to nearly hit him, then roll down my window and yell “Moron!” or blow my horn at him, have I now committed a hate crime?

  20. BigJim says:

    Finally, drivers who use their vehicles as weapons to intimidate and/or harass other road uses will not get away without consequence. So next time you are feeling angry because you have to share the road, think twice before you act out, because a lot of people carry video cameras these days, so if you harass you may end up in court.
    Law abiding road users have nothing to fear.

  21. Chuck Reilly says:

    I’ve been a cyclist and a motorist all my life. Sonoma County is the only place in the Bay Area I’m afraid to ride my bike -

  22. Skippy says:

    To a Liberal, everything is a weapon, if it assists you in exercising your freedom.

  23. David says:

    “Councilman Patrick Slayter. “Just because you are driving a 5,000-pound weapon doesn’t mean might makes right.””

    Cars are now “weapons”???

    “The proposed ordinance defines what harassment is and sets up a procedure for an injured party, whether it is a cyclist, pedestrian, jogger or skateboard rider, to bring a lawsuit against an aggressor, which could be a motorist or even a cyclist.”

    Motorists can’t be harassed but everyone else can be??

    It is official, the inmates are now running the asylum know as Sebastopol.