WatchSonoma Watch

County to weigh proposed law on cyclist harassment



Spend enough time on a bicycle, veteran riders say, and it’s bound to happen: Out on the road one day, you’ll be

Cyclist Sarah Schroer, in yellow, leads cyclists up Calistoga Road during the "Saving Daylight Century" bike ride Sunday, March 10, 2013. (SCOTT MANCHESTER/ PD)

Cyclist Sarah Schroer, in yellow, leads cyclists up Calistoga Road during the “Saving Daylight Century” bike ride Sunday, March 10, 2013. (SCOTT MANCHESTER/ PD)

the target of a hurled insult or something else thrown by a passing motorist.

Or worse — you’ll be forced off the road or brushed back by an aggressive driver speeding by and laying on the horn.

“It’s things that make you realize you are vulnerable,” said Sarah Schroer, 41, a Santa Rosa resident and avid cyclist.

Motorists counter with their own stories, recalling bike riders who have dangerously ignored stop signs or pedestrians who have darted in front of traffic outside of crosswalks.

The often heated debate on road rules in Sonoma County has played out in public forums and polarized some camps, with cycling enthusiasts and fed-up drivers squawking about bad behavior by the other side.

The situation has been fueled by the growing number of recreational bike riders on area roads and a series of vehicle crashes in the past two years that have seriously injured or killed cyclists and pedestrians.

The county Board of Supervisors is set to wade back into the debate Tuesday by considering a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for bike riders and pedestrians to sue those who intentionally threaten and harass them.

The proposal has been advanced by bicycling advocates, with support from Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

Sonoma County would become the first county nationwide to enact such a law. Los Angeles, Berkeley, Washington, D.C., and Sunnyvale were the first cities to do so, while Sebastopol became the first local city to pass a so-called “vulnerable user” ordinance in December. The Healdsburg City Council is set to weigh a similar proposal in May.

The county proposal differs from those adopted by cities in one significant way. Where most cities entitle successful plaintiffs to triple monetary penalties — a provision aimed at enticing attorney interest — damages and fees under the county ordinance would be left up to the discretion of the court.

County officials said the change was needed to avoid a conflict with state law. Bicycling advocates said they accepted that analysis while voicing disappointment that it did away with a core provision.

Even so, they said the county ordinance would offer a clearer path to redress in civil court, where the standard of proof is lower than in criminal proceedings. And it would send a strong message to motorists, helping to rein in hostility toward cyclists and pedestrians.

“What it is saying is this is shared public space,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, which has advanced the ordinance locally. “Sonoma County isn’t a place where we tolerate people harassing each other on our public roads.”

The ordinance also would prohibit pedestrians and cyclists from physically or verbally abusing other nonmotorized road users, Helfrich noted.

Critics have pushed back on two fronts. First, they say the proposal targets motorists for bad behavior when cyclists and pedestrians are sometimes equally to blame.

“Some of the bicyclists and pedestrians are guilty of not using good sense,” Linda Berg told the Sebastopol City Council in December when its ordinance was approved. “I’m not sure putting the burden on the motorist is a good idea.”

Cyclists have acknowledged that greater education is needed among their ranks to ensure traffic laws are followed. Vigilante enforcement by drivers or unprovoked aggression toward law-abiding cyclists doesn’t help the situation, they say.

On the second front, critics say laws already are in place to punish those convicted of serious car-versus-bike crimes, and any ordinance targeting lesser incidents risks meddling in a murky area of law.

Advocates, though, say those cases are seldom filed, partly because there are no laws prohibiting harassment or intimidation of pedestrians or cyclists.

The county ordinance would change that for the unincorporated area, covering various cases of physical or verbal abuse where the intent is to injure a cyclist or pedestrian.

“We’re not talking about name-calling here,” said Helfrich, the bike coalition director.

Zane, a cyclist herself, pointed to the sport’s local growth, including multiple appearances by the professional Tour of California and group rides such as Levi Leipheimer’s GranFondo that draw thousands of participants to the area.

“We’re all sharing the road, and anything we can do to make it safer for all of us is in our best interest,” Zane said.

The impact of such ordinances is unclear. In cities where they are in place, no cases have been brought forward under the new legal protections, county officials said.

But bicycling advocates say the local laws limit the roadside confrontations that can lead to court action. They point to records maintained by the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition that show a drop in harassment reports made by cyclists since the city’s ordinance went into effect.

“It’s pushing the conversation. That’s the thing we want to do more than nailing anyone in court,” said Bill Oetinger, 66, ride director with the Santa Rosa Cycling Club.

Schroer, the Santa Rosa cyclist who led a pack of riders over 100 miles of local roads Sunday, said she hoped a new county ordinance would calm tensions with motorists.

“That’s the main thing. I hope it would be a deterrent,” she said.

The proposal requires a majority vote by the Board of Supervisors. The hearing Tuesday morning will include a staff presentation and public comment. A formal vote could follow at the board’s March 19 meeting.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

22 Responses to “County to weigh proposed law on cyclist harassment”

  1. pete says:

    What about the people who cut me off every day when I’m in a vehicle? Does their intimidation / harassment not matter because I’m not on a bicycle?
    Specialty laws, for specific groups of people are stupid and unfair.

    Hey Joseph Jordan, there are laws if some one is intimidating and harassing you in your car, the road rage laws. You’re right, it is stupid and unfair that just a specific group,(auto drivers) have the only laws to protect them.

  2. Big jim says:

    If drivers were not so aggressive towards cyclists, often endangering them, the ordinance would never have been suggested. Bikes don’t injure motorists, so the risk is not equal. Don’t pass a cyclist unless it is safe to do so, just like with any other vehicle!

  3. Michael Novograblenof says:

    I would pay registration for my bike, I see nothing wrong or unfair about it, we share the same road, and we should also obey the laws of the road.
    People on bikes and in cars need to be respectful of each other period!
    That seems to be the thing missing is no respect, it seems to be to much me me me, and not a thought for others.
    Government would stay out of it, if it was not an issue, well maybe not.

  4. Joseph Jordan says:

    Sounds like another future-crime law. Now a bicyclist who *feels* intimidated, can more easily sue because the county has decided that they’re more protected than me?

    What about the people who cut me off every day when I’m in a vehicle? Does their intimidation / harassment not matter because I’m not on a bicycle?

    Specialty laws, for specific groups of people are stupid and unfair.

    Not to mention, we already have enough laws on the books; Quit making more and stop wasting our money.

  5. chuck reilly says:

    Uh, there’s a little confusion here. Cyclists are not “riding in your lane” ! if you are behind them, and since they pay taxes, just like you, it’s actually “their lane” as they have the “right of way”. DMV Code allows you to pass them – when it’s safe. They should not, however, impede traffic by blocking the road.

  6. Liz says:

    My biggest fear when approaching bicycle riders is that one of them is going to fall off thier bike in front of my vehicle and I have a real problem when they want to ride side by side and are totally in my lane. Try riding side by side in a car outside of you lane and see what the CHP thinks about it.

  7. Grapevines says:

    Actually this is going to take care of itself. You see the more time the worthless BOS uses up doing “lookie-see” projects like this instead of addressing the real problems facing all of us, the worse things will become.

    It won’t be long till the roads are such poor shape that bicyclists will go elsewhere to ride because doing so here will be no fun. And then the BOS can look at important issues, like getting iPads so they can keep up with the equally worthless City Council.

  8. James Bennett says:

    Jorge, amen.

  9. Snarky says:

    “OverEasy” = just another government slug wishing to expand government into our lives further and further.

    License plates on bicycles?

    What better way to expand an already bloated and outdated DMV payroll !

  10. Snarky says:

    We should all take close notice that the government routinely asks for more and more tax money from us to support BIKE TRAILS….

    Yet we allow scofflaws like “Just Curious” to impose his own legal definition of “multi-use trails” upon us.

    Jog to the right. Walk to the right. And nobody will even notice you, sir.
    Meander about the trail like an idiot without concern of those around you and you will be verbally scolded.


  11. Jorge Soto says:

    Please forgive the SRCC and SCBC, they don’t speak for me, an avid cyclist, and many others. They are just pawns, being used as usual, by a much larger agenda. SMART, who took funds from them and now this. Every Bicycle Coalition across the country as the IDENTICAL AGENDA. This isn’t free thought, it is managed social change.

    The backlash tey are creating for the avereage cyclist is HUGE. I want to ride wherever and whenever I want, these folks are ensuring that won’t be in my future.

    Chicago is already planning taxes, tolls, restrictions for bicycles. Some cities have banned them.

    Please read a copy of “The Ideal Communist City” published by the former Soviet Union’s University of Moscow (circa 1970) chock full of all the current designer planning buzz-words like “high density, mixed-use walkable, livable, less-auto dependent cycling communities”. It is the sae old thing, repackaged. AND restrictive.

  12. It Only Take One says:

    One smart attorney could instantly challenge the authority of the county to enforce. Similar to New York’s intended large size soda ban. Unenforceable and illegal. Like most things the county does it’s all about making political headlines and not at all concerned with serving the citizens.

  13. Just Curious says:

    Will this ordinance apply to cyclists who harass runners and pedestrians on the Santa Rosa Creek multi-use path by refusing to ride less than 25 mph or pass single file?

  14. Reality Check says:

    It doesn’t speak well of human progress to think that road anger might cause a driver to intentional harm or risk harming a cyclist.

    But that doesn’t mean drivers aren’t justified in being angry at the antics of some cyclists. Some seem not to care a whit about impeding the flow of traffic, even revel in hogging the road. Have they a death wish?

  15. Snarky says:

    Will the new “law” allow us to litigate against the numerous off duty deputies that regularly and routinely run the stop sign near their office & court complex each day ?

    I’ve mentioned this before & none of the cops who participate in this board ever respond … that is… except with their wimpy “thumbs downs” because all it takes to confirm my observation is to go there yourself and watch… any day.

  16. Sonoma Gone Crazy says:

    We can predict how this will play out in front of a certain Supervisor. Supervisor Zane is not very professional. She thinks more like a “Queen” over her little “subjects” rather than someone who was voted into office. She has a very nasty habit of giving everyone dirty hateful looks if she doesn’t agree with your perspective on an issue. So drivers of auto’s beware you’ll get nasty looks from Supervisor Zane, be prepared to be cutoff at the three minute mark if the Supervisor’s even allow three minutes to speak on this topic. It is usually down to two minutes, unless they like you or they agree with the topic you are discussing. Then they let you go over the blinking red light. Bikers, expect Supervisor Zane to be all smiles and agree with everything you say.

    Supervisor Zane, you are so obvious, it’s like dealing with a 5 year old asking for candy before dinner!

  17. Steveguy says:

    Maybe after this law, they should pass a law directed at Priusowners.

    Call it the ” Trader Joe’s Parking Lot Bill”. really

  18. Ricardo Sorentino says:

    RE: Over Easy – “This will require bicycles to have license plates so they can be identified much like a car.”

    I agree. Seems only fair that all bicycles should have a license plate mounted on the front and back of their bicycle to help identify them. Vehicles can easily be identified, but not bicyclists that blow through stop signs and stop lights.

    I’d bet that many people who ride like they do, indifferent to all the traffic laws that apply to them, is in part due to their anonymity.

  19. GAJ says:

    Over Easy is exactly right.

    Without plates on bicycles the law is ill-conceived, assumptive and discriminatory…which means it will pass.

  20. Snarky says:

    “”The ordinance also would prohibit pedestrians and cyclists from physically or verbally abusing other nonmotorized road users, Helfrich noted.””

    Again, although well intentioned, the government attempts to incrementally strip away free speech.

    Just as the government has incrementally stripped away your private property rights by commanding you to obtain (and pay for) government “permits” over trivial home repairs. Your house… but they want your money.

    Yeah. Lets cuff that jogger right now!

  21. Over Easy says:

    The Law needs to go both ways to allow motorists the same opportunity as cyclists to report poor behavior, dangerous acts, and to sue them.

    This will require bicycles to have license plates so they can be identified much like a car. I’m sure DMV would be happy to issue plates and collect fees like they do for cars.

    It only makes sense to do this.

  22. James Bennett says:

    Betcha anything for bikes will carry more ‘weight’.