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Sonoma County Board of Supervisors backs cyclist harassment law


The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue those who harass or intimidate them.

The move has been hotly debated in online forums where it has drawn fire from some motorists who say they are being unfairly targeted. Cycling enthusiasts have defended the measure, saying incidents of roadside abuse are widespread.

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 issue has surfaced amid the county’s ongoing struggle to maintain and modernize a vast and crumbling road system, one that some critics say is ill-equipped to handle the growing ranks of recreational and commuting bike riders.

Opponents of the measure, however, were a no-show at the board meeting Tuesday. Several cyclists attended to support the board’s action.

Advocates have advanced the ordinance as way to offer a clearer path to civil court remedies for bicyclists and pedestrians and limit hostility toward those road users.

They said the board endorsement sent a clear message.

“This brands Sonoma County as a place where harassment isn’t tolerated,” said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, the main group behind the proposal.

Sonoma County is set to become the first county in the country to adopt such an ordinance, following in the wake of several cities, including Sebastopol, which adopted its “vulnerable user” ordinance in December. The county’s formal approval is scheduled for the Board of Supervisors meeting next week.

The measure had strong support from Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has worked with advocates and law enforcement officials on bicycle and pedestrian safety. She hailed Sonoma County as a “international destination” for bike riders, noting the growing local presence of the sport, seen in both professional and amateur events.

“This is about our quality of life here in the county,” Zane said. “This is about safety and civility.”

Several other supervisors pressed county staff for answers on how the ordinance would change current law.

Critics say protections 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.

Supervisor Efren Carrillo said he understood cyclists and pedestrians already can sue for general harassment and intimidation.

While that is true, Deputy County Counsel Linda Schiltgen said, there are no laws specifically involving civil harassment of pedestrians and cyclists. A local ordinance would change that but would not necessarily require criminal enforcement, county officials said.

In the unincorporated area of the county, it would prohibit:

Physically assaulting or attempting to assault a bicyclist or pedestrian.

Intentionally injuring or attempting to injure, either by words, vehicle or other object, a bicyclist or pedestrian.

Intentionally distracting or attempting to distract a bicyclist.

Intentionally forcing or attempting to force a bicyclist or pedestrian off a street for purposes unrelated to public safety.

The ordinance also would prohibit pedestrians and cyclists from physically or verbally abusing other non-motorized users of county roads.

Supervisor Mike McGuire sought and received board support for changes that more clearly exempted interactions between road users for the purpose of public safety.

“It’s so that a honk from a motorist or a polite shout would not be seen as harassment,” McGuire said.

Critics have harped especially on that point, saying behavior by cyclists — blowing through stop signs or riding in wide packs on narrow rural roads — is widespread and needs to be called out when it happens.

“Their feeling is they own the road,” said Larry Robert, 53, a Santa Rosa resident opposed to the ordinance. “If I want to go by and say, ‘Idiots, ride in single file,’ I have a right to do that. As far as I’m concerned, that’s freedom of speech.”

Robert added that he did not condone swerving at cyclists or other aggressive acts by motorists.

Cyclists acknowledge greater education is needed in their ranks to ensure traffic laws are followed.

But abuse from other road users doesn’t help, they say.

“People are using bad behavior on the part of some to justify being hostile or physically trying to hurt people,” said Helfrich, the bike coalition director. “We don’t tolerate that in our society. It’s called being a vigilante.”

Supervisor Susan Gorin said she saw unsafe activity by all road users on a daily basis. But she called the ordinance “essential to increase consciousness about the vulnerability of cyclists and pedestrians.”

The proposal was initiated in the aftermath of a series of vehicle crashes in the county in the past two years that have seriously injured or killed cyclists and pedestrians.

One involved a driver chasing a local cyclist onto a golf course and attempting to run him down with his car, authorities said.

The driver, Harry E. Smith, 82, of Santa Rosa faces a number of charges, including attempted murder. The cyclist, Santa Rosa restaurant owner Toraj Soltani, 48, continues to recuperate from his injuries, including a badly fractured wrist.

“It’s just incredible that something like that happened in our county,” Helfrich told the board. “I hope it never happens again.”

In other cities where similar ordinances are in place — Los Angeles, Berkeley, Washington, D.C., and Sunnyvale — no cases have been brought forward under the new legal protections, county officials said.

Unlike the city laws, many of which offer prevailing parties 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.

Advocates say just the mere existence of the laws has reduced cases of harassment reported by bicyclists.

But Carrillo and Supervisor David Rabbitt voiced concern that the new ordinance would lead to a false sense of security for cyclists and pedestrians.

They called for a broader education campaign to improve relations among road users. Those efforts could include signs advising users of the new county law and clearer safety directions on county roads frequented by cyclists.

“I want to make sure that what we do here is not just a flurry of activity,” Rabbitt said. “I’m supportive, but it’s only one step along a path that could go much further.”

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

23 Responses to “Sonoma County Board of Supervisors backs cyclist harassment law”

  1. GAJ says:

    Today, 3 bicyclists blithely riding across traffic on Santa Rosa Avenue at 3pm fully expecting everyone to stop, because, after all, they were using the pedestrian crossing to ride across.


    I have 5 bicycles in my garage and know full well that is completely against traffic laws.

    Pedestrian crossings, strangely enough, are only for pedestrians!

    I’d have no issue if I had to pay $20/year for a plate for each of my bicycles.

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  2. GAJ says:

    Dan Drummond, green ID snowflake?

    What in the heck is that.

    And yes, they are also targeting motorcyclists but the lead in the headline was bicycles.

    As a motorcyclist I’m more than happy to point out that there are lunatics amongst us that need to be reined in. Treating the street like a race track, (whether on a motorcycle or a bicycle), is plain stupid. The street is far less forgiving than the track.

    Bicyclists, however, are always playing the “we do nothing wrong” card, which, as this article points out, is a fallacy.

    It’s time for bicycles to have license plates for enforcement.

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  3. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    @GAJ – I see their main focus is the reckless motorcycle riders. It’s about time they cracked down on speeding motorcycles! Too bad so many tax dollars must be spent to control motorcyclists who only think of their own thrills. I hope they especially ticket the noisy ones.

    “So many people who live along Lucas Valley Road, Highway 1 and Panoramic Highway have complained about reckless motorcycle riders and bicyclists in West Marin on the weekends that the California Highway Patrol has announced that it will add officers and use aircraft to crack down on speeding, racing and “Sunday Morning Riders” (a motorcycling tradition in West Marin.)

    P.S. Glad to see your same old green ID snowflake, instead of the one the PD deleted from this article.

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  4. GAJ says:

    From the Marin IJ:

    “CHP cracks down on reckless West Marin bicyclists…

    Officers will also focus on bicyclists who fail to stop at stop signs, and on packs of cyclists that block the roadway and prevent drivers from passing.”


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  5. Jorge Soto says:

    Manufactured Consent, that is the name of the game in local and the national political scene now. And, they brag about it. A local politician ent to Thunderbird to learn how to sway voters using “Coercive Persuasion”.

    They don’t care what we want, they love the idea that they can create what they want.

    They create fake neighborhood groups, hand choosing the people, hire a professional facilitator to manage the correct outcome, then say they have community support.

    OUST EM, AND do it quickly.

    Here is a current ongoing group of such hooked ideas. Before you read them, remember that the aim of such ideas is collecting people under AN IMITATION OF THE REAL THING.
    Whatever meaning these hooked ideas have, they are not searching out people to move them into actual individual choices. No, the objective is to rope them under a fake banner that looks real.
    “Help others. Help the needy. Raise up the needy. We’re all in this together. Greatest good. Greatest good for the greatest number. Humanity as one. Peace. Let’s all cooperate. The human family…”
    This is only a partial list of the group of hooked ideas.

    These ideas are transmitted to the global population through every means possible: ads, public service announcements, political speeches, movies, articles, books, the news, television shows of every type, the education system. It’s a blitz, and it doesn’t stop.

    All the angles are played.

    The psyop calculation runs this way: the majority of people who buy in and connect their realities to other people’s realities and achieve overlap—will go passive and accept “the new humane society.” All these people are complete pawns.

    The sector of people who buy in and thus share realities, collectively, and then DO something about it…these people will follow a prescribed path. They’ll join the approved groups and campaign for the chosen causes. They’re dupes.

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  6. Morgan H. says:

    I love all the bicyclists who keep spouting these myths that beer bottles are being thrown at them by motorists..

    Like all motorists in Sonoma County don’t know about open bottle laws… like all motorists in SC are stark raving mad alcoholics who don’t care for human life…

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  7. bear says:

    Last time I checked, bicyclists have the same right to use roads as drivers.

    I’ve done bike touring and nearly been killed on numerous occasions. By aholes who took pleasure in doing this. And threw things like beer bottles.

    There are all kinds of plans for on- and off-road bike lanes and trails in Sonoma County. Guess there just isn’t enough money for sane traffic control?

    You couldn’t pay me to ride a bike on Sonoma County roads. Who needs tourism?

    You folks just can’t manage patience, can you? Can’t wait until your giant truck gets you into a zillion-dollar lawsuit.

    How is this unreasonable?

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  8. Its Me says:

    What should be included in the new ordinance is when a bicyclists or a group of bicyclists acting in inappropriate manner or to deliberately to harass either a pedestrian or an auto driver, shall be held at the same standard, as ask of others. No running of stop signs, red lights and no Critical Masses, and pulling over when blocking the movement of traffic.

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  9. Jorge Soto says:

    “Socialism can only arrive by bicycle.”

    A quote attributed to Chilean Socialist Politician Jose Antonio Viera Gallo.

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  10. The Answer says:

    The majority of those little people in spandex pedaling their expensive bikes and crying loudly at public meetings about how they are abused is ridicules.

    The only thing more ridicules, are the politicians who slobber at their feet and grant them rights and privileges the vast majority of us are not entitled to by virtue of not riding a bicycle on a narrow traffic prone street.

    These riders are a small minority demanding “rights” when they themselves need to comply with the traffic laws and use common sense which too many of them don’t seem to have.

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  11. Larry Parker says:

    “This is about our quality of life here in the county,” Zane said.
    Of course if you google the name Shirlee Zane you will see Shirlee Zane riding a bicycle. Is this biased person the type of “leader” we want for our county?

    Unfortunately this solves nothing, this further divides cyclists and drivers.

    How about a license for cyclists on two lane roads?

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  12. Chris from Santa Rosa says:

    @Greg Karraker That’s not what is happening in that picture, Greg. The cyclist on the right is either looking for a gap in the pace line so that all the riders are single-file, OR he is “taking the lane” because it is not a safe place for the car to pass. If it’s the latter, he is doing it for self-defense, not to be rude. The cyclists are by no means “forcing” the car into a dangerous situation. Only the driver of that car can do that.

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  13. Van says:

    Based on the Webster’s Dictionary definition of “harassment”, I have determined that I am entitled to compensation by most of the people on bikes, pan handlers, small children, my neighbor, most of the people driving, dogs, cats, the Sonoma Co. transportation dept. and my wife.

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  14. Jorge Soto says:

    I apologize for sending in a second post, but I thought this really makes thing clear. And remember, I am an avid cyclist..I DO NOT SUPPORT SRCC and SCBC and I ride more than 95% of them.

    Think about it objectively. Since when has society embraced sudden change? Since when have the values of a minority been unquestioningly accepted by the majority? Since when have people welcomed ideas that they believe threaten their own lifestyles?

    Since never.

    That’s not how things work. And cycling – a fringe activity that over the past couple of years has attempted to torpedo itself into the North American mainstream – is no exception. The “cycling culture” is not so special as to be immune to the laws of social psychology. Ingroup-outgroup bias, prejudice, stereotyping, and all that good stuff, apply to the interactions between non-cyclists and cyclists just as they do to interactions between other social groups with conflicting goals and value systems. It was naive on our part to believe that sweeping changes could be imposed on our neighbourhoods – both in the form of bicycle infrastructure and even just in the form of increasing numbers of cyclists on the roads – without non-cyclists feeling threatened.

    The incident that took place in Boston several months back illustrated this point perfectly. Just weeks after bicycle lanes were installed in Charlestown, the local residents had a Council meeting, voted to have them removed, and swiftly did so. Many cyclists were outraged by the events, and in a way so was I – The waste of government funds this battle of wills involved was unacceptable. But the reaction of the Charlestown community in of itself was understandable to me. Adequate research was not done to determine whether neighbourhoods through which bike lanes were planned wanted them or not in order to gauge possible resistance or hostility. No effort was made to establish good will with the neighbourhoods, and so there was no good will. The community felt that something strange, foreign and dangerous was being shoved down its throat by the big city planners, and they wanted none of it.

    This is all about a national agenda. This isn’t local at all.

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  15. Jorge Soto says:

    These kind and wonderful folks pushing this crazy stuff honestly don’t realize the consequences. I know most of them, and like em allot, but they are just sheep, being led down a road that they will not like.

    The backlash from this behavior has already hit many a town. Chicago has plans to impose bicycle registration, taxes, tolls, parking fees and restrictions. These guys just don’t get it.


    They again are the pawns in a much bigger game. CONTROL. I forgive them, not that I should, but because THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO.

    They are basically ensuring that one my last true freedoms, to ride wherever and whenever I want without restrictions will be a FLEETING MEMORY.

    WAKE UP. I have two other words for these crazy folks, but I will refrain I am sure you can figure those two out.

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  16. Lovefor Dagame says:

    After reading all the entertaining responese from Facebook users in the original article, what’s truly clear is that there are some who want to keep this issue polarized, keep it as an “us versus them” fight. Most motorists aren’t out to harass or injure cyclists. As has been pointed out, there are a few miscreants, some “yahoos” that are getting out of hand. Conversely, most cyclists ride safely, and with respect, other than a few miscreants and yahoos. All the arguments made on the cyclists’ side can be made on the motorits’ side, and neither side will admit it. Many of us ride AND drive, but are not “avid” cyclists, and we don’t seem to count because we don’t belong to a group or coalition, and we don’t ride every weekend. We ride for fun, and also have other interests. When a law is enacted due to a few miscreants, and is designed to protect a small group, it angers those who expect fairness from the Board of Supervisors, a little reciprocity. One of the supervisors stated she saw both motorists and cyclists behaving badly every day, but chose to one side instead of both. As an elected official she should be representing the entire constituency in the county, not picking and choosing one group or the other. One of the most vocal of the cyclists, who attempted to answer nearly every poster who wanted reciprocity stated that Barrel Tasting weekends were an overindulgence. Basically they were a hindrance to the avid cycling community, and anyone choosing to attend barrel tasting was some sort of an elitist. More polarization, and not the way to elicit any sympathy or agreement for the cyclists’ cause. It was claimed that licensing bikes wouldn’t accomplish anything. I disagree. For those few yahoo miscreants that don’t stop, ride the wrong direction, and generally don’t care about anyone but themselves, this would certainly help if the motorists had reciprocity. Identities of the miscreants could be found if there was a bike license number, instead of the description” umm, it was a guy on a red bike with a helmet, sun glasses, and wearing that cycling stuff.” Passing a law that only works for the cyclists will simply further the polarization, frustration, and anger from the motorists, and that can’t be good. The Board of Supervisors need to have concern for the people of the county as a whole, not picking niche groups or projects, because that justs keeps on producing politics as usual. Keep the faith, perhaps someday they’ll actually do something logical that applies to the majority. It can happen, can’t it?

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  17. GAJ says:

    Yesterday, on a 100 mile motorcycle ride I saw plenty of cyclists and didn’t witness one problem with cars dealing with them.

    What I did see, however, was a cyclist in Larkfield blithely blow right through a red light as I stopped behind him at the red light.

    The fool just kept right on going.

    “Must keep up my momentum” seemed the only thing on the spandex clad idiot’s mind.

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  18. GAJ says:

    Absolutely ridiculous.

    The Board of Supervisors couldn’t find their true priorities if their lives depended on it.

    It’s always about “feel good” and “nice to do” with these clowns.

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  19. chris says:

    If anything is true, this law means less nanny government as it is providing a civil recourse against aggressive drivers that doesn’t involve law enforcement directly. Also, there is no law that requires cyclists to ride single file. In fact, as vehicles on the road, cyclists should take the full right hand travel lane unless conditions as safe to ride on the shoulder and they choose to provide that courtesy to other vehicles OR there is a designated bike lane.

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  20. Grapevines says:

    And the march towards the completely Government controlled “Nanny State” of California continues.

    And the sheep that elect these fools wonder why the roads are in such bad condition?

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 6

  21. Tom says:

    Laws the this just further divide motorists and cyclists.If anything it just leads to more animosity. Shame on the city council.

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  22. Dan Drummond Sr says:

    Mr. Karraker, does their force only work on yellow Mustangs? I didn’t know a bicycle could control an automobile like that! I always just slowdown, especially when approaching a dangerous curve. Maybe turning on your emergency blinkers would help.

    Apparently there is nothing that cannot happen today. ~Mark Twain

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  23. Greg Karraker says:

    Does anybody notice the two cyclists who are riding two abreast and forcing the yellow Mustang behind them into a dangerous situation of a curve? These are poster children for why bicyclists annoy law abiding motorists.

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