By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The Healdsburg City Council on Tuesday agreed to consider an ordinance that would make it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue motorists who threaten or harass them.
The council, following a brief presentation by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, agreed to consider the issue at its March 4 meeting.
“It will be interesting to have the discussion and make the point that Healdsburg is a bike and pedestrian friendly community,” said Councilman Tom Chambers, an avid cyclist. But he said it is premature to say if he will support it.
Healdsburg could become the second city in Sonoma County after Sebastopol to adopt such a law, which cycling advocates say provides additional protections for people riding bikes and walking.
The bicycle coalition pointed out that Healdsburg is a key hub for cycling in Sonoma County, for both local riders and tourists, and that many people enjoy downtown Healdsburg by foot.
But Healdsburg Mayor Susan Jones said, “I want to do a little more research,” particularly whether it will require more law enforcement resources to investigate complaints.
She said she was once slapped on the back while riding her bicycle and knocked off the road.
“It does happen. I’m a cyclist, so anything we can do to make it safer for us . . .” she said.
But on the other hand, she said she also hears complaints about cyclists running signal lights or riding three abreast and not moving over for traffic.
Cycling advocates say the law is mainly intended as a deterrent, although it will make it easier for a cyclist or pedestrian to bring a civil lawsuit if they are harassed or assaulted.
“It’s going to stop teenage yahoos and people in pickups who think it’s funny to throw something at someone when they drive by, or take a swerve at someone,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycling Coalition.
Councilman Shaun McCaffery said it is interesting that there have been no reported lawsuits under the ordinance in the few cities that so far have adopted the ordinance since 2011.
The coalition and other local bicycle advocates began promoting the ordinance last year after a series of fatal or serious-injury incidents involving vehicles and bicycles or pedestrians.
It’s patterned after similar ordinances that have been adopted in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Sunnyvale and Washington, D.C.
Supporters say the proposed ordinance is intended to fill gaps in criminal prosecution, which has a higher standard of proof, such as requiring positive identification of the driver
‘In a civil case, you just need a preponderance of evidence. It can be highly circumstantial,” Helfrich said.
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.
Anyone who violates the ordinance is liable for triple damages; paying attorneys fees and the cost of litigation; and subject to punitive damages.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org