By BOB NORBERG
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A push to make it easier in Sonoma County for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue drivers who threaten or harass them will get its first test Tuesday when a proposed
ordinance goes before the Sebastopol City Council.
The council will hold a public hearing starting at 7 p.m. on the “vulnerable road users” ordinance, which is being promoted countywide by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.
“The reason we need it is, from a bicycling perspective, it is usually a blissful experience to ride in Sonoma County, but sometimes people are harassed, and it happens enough and it is dangerous enough that we feel it is important to take action,” said Sandra Lupien, the coalition’s director of outreach.
The coalition and other local bicycle advocates took up the cause this summer after a series of fatal and serious car crashes in the county involving cyclists and pedestrians.
Mayor Michael Kyes said the ordinance is a good fit for Sebastopol.
“I think we are sort of receptive of protecting bicycles and pedestrians,” he said. “That is one of our goals — to make the city more friendly for walking and riding a bicycle — and this is a step in that direction.”
The proposed ordinance defines what harassment is and sets up a procedure for the injured party, whether it is a cyclist, pedestrian, jogger or skateboard rider, to bring a lawsuit against the aggressor, which could be a motorist or even a cyclist.
“People riding bicycles, walking and those with disabilities have a right to use our public roadways, trails and sidewalks in peace,” said a report by Sebastopol’s city staff. “However, these vulnerable users are frequently the target of dangerous harassment.”
The report says drivers purposefully swerve at bicycle riders and pedestrians, threaten them, throw soda cans at them and sometimes even shoot at them.
The Sebastopol proposal is meant to provide a legal recourse for pedestrians, cyclists, roller skaters, skateboarders and the impaired, according to the staff report.
The proposal targets such harassment as attempted physical assault and 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 three feet; and failing to yield to a pedestrian walking or running along a road, crossing the road or crossing a public sidewalk or pathway.
“Harassing people is already illegal, and if there were police resources available to deal with it all, this ordinance wouldn’t be necessary, or if people behaved properly,” Kyes said.
He said an ordinance will not stop accidents from happening, but “it should get people to pay a little more attention.”
While the coalition hopes to get the ordinance passed by all cities and the county, the Sebastopol council is the first to introduce an ordinance.
“It will only take effect in those jurisdictions that adopt it,” Lupien said. “It is a decision that is to be made by the elected body in each jurisdiction, but we would like to see it adopted by each elected body so no matter where you bike or walk in Sonoma County, you have this protection.”
Similar ordinances have been passed in Berkeley, Sunnyvale, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has indicated support for an ordinance.
Only a half dozen people spoke when the Sebastopol council first discussed the issue in November, including cyclists who recounted harassment by motorists and critics who said existing civil and criminal laws offer sufficient protection. Afterward, the council directed the city’s staff to come up with a proposed ordinance.
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.
“I am not sure how many people to expect, how many people will speak (at the hearing). It will be interesting,” Lupien said. “This will be an opportunity to see what level of interest the public has in the ordinance.”
Tuesday’s council meeting will be held in the Sebastopol Youth Annex.
You can reach Staff Writer Bob Norberg at 521-5206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.