Sonoma County considers anti-harassment protection for bicyclists

In the wake of a vicious vehicular assault against a bicyclist in the Sonoma County community of Oakmont, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition has urged the county and each of its nine cities to adopt bicyclist anti-harassment ordinances. CalBike supports the coalition’s efforts to protect and empower vulnerable road users.

The proposed ordinance is modeled after a similar ordinance adopted last year in Los Angeles, the first of its kind in the nation. For those unfamiliar with the bicyclist anti-harassment ordinance, attorney Ross Hirsch provided an excellent overview on LA Streetsblog.

Berkeley and Sunnyvale have since followed LA’s example, adopting their own anti-harassment ordinances in earlier this year. As more communities consider such ordinances, we’ve seen ordinance opponents voice the same misconceptions over and over again. To clear the air, here’s what this ordinance is and is not:

The ordinance is necessary

Many detractors claim this is a superfluous law, a solution in search of a problem. Those who have spent any time bicycling on California streets, however, know that harassment is real – and sometimes with lethal consequences. What’s more, harassment and fear of harassment is one of the biggest barriers to increasing the number of new bicyclists.

This ordinance is designed for 1% of drivers

Opponents like to claim that this is another in a long string of “anti-car” measures, attempting to punish all drivers for their choice of transportation. In fact, this ordinance has no effect on the 99% of drivers who are courteous, careful and law-abiding. It’s a very small subset of drivers who will intentionally assault and harass bicyclists and current laws are inadequate for protecting bicyclists from these predators.

The current laws are not enough to protect bicyclists against harassment

While it is already illegal to assault or harass a bicyclist with a motor vehicle, offenders are almost never prosecuted in criminal court. This is partially due to the high burden of proof required in criminal court and partially due to the disinclination of law enforcement and prosecutors to take harassment of bicyclists seriously. This ordinance allows bicyclists to bypass prosecutors and police, taking an assailant to civil court instead. 

The anti-harassment ordinance does not create any new crimes

Opponents like to cast the anti-harassment ordinance in the vein of the dreaded “nanny state”, creating new laws and red tape to mandate good behavior. As noted above, an ordinance barring harassment of bicyclists creates no new crimes. By making these pre-existing crimes eligible for civil action, the ordinance actually removes a level of government for citizens seeking redress from the effects of assault and harassment. Instead of inserting more government oversight and control, this ordinance empowers bicyclists to confront harassment and assault on their own.

The ordinance is narrowly defined

Another red herring commonly offered up about the ordinance is that “harassment” could constitute any range of actions, creating a broad grey area ripe for abuse. There are five clearly defined forms of “actionable harassment” that occur when a driver:

  • Physically assaults or attempts to physically assault a bicyclist;
  • Threatens to physically injure a bicyclist;
  • Intentionally injures, attempts to injure, or threatens to physically injure, either by words, vehicle, or other object, a bicyclist;
  • Intentionally distracts or attempts to distract a bicyclist; and
  • Intentionally forces or attempts to force a bicyclist off a street for purposes unrelated to public safety.

The ordinance is not an invitation for frivolous lawsuits

Opponents claim the ordinance gives bicyclists license to bring phony lawsuits against drivers, similar to bogus slip-and-fall lawsuits. This hasn’t happened in Los Angeles, considered by some to be the most litigious place in the country. Since the ordinance was adopted there a year ago, no harassment lawsuits have yet been taken to civil court.

CalBike urges Sonoma County and its cities to empower bicyclists to protect themselves by adopting bicyclist anti-harassment ordinances.

by Chris Kidd, CalBike board of directors