Sonoma seeks end to biker harass­ment

Did you know that  bicyclists and pedestrians can be legally considered “vulnerable users” because of aggression, harassment and overall danger posed by drivers?

Sonoma County knew. The county’s Board of Supervisors is set to consider a proposed “vulnerable user” ordinance Tuesday that would allow bike riders and pedestrians to sue if they are intentionally threatened or harassed on the road.

Though the cities of Sebastopol, Sunnyvale, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. have all enacted such a law already and Healdsburg is considering it, Sonoma would be the first U.S. county to do so.

The vulnerable users ordinance aims to protect bikers and pedestrians by providing an easier path to compensation in civil court and hopefully sending a warning message to motorists who tend to err on the side of aggression rather than caution.

Sonoma County, however, is also doing things a bit differently. Instead of guaranteeing plaintiffs triple monetary penalties – a pro-bike provision central to the other cities’ ordinances – any damages and fees incurred under the ordinance would be decided by the court.

County officials said the change was made to avoid a conflict with state law.

And for those who complain that non-drivers can be equally responsible for bad behavior, the law prohibits cyclists and pedestrians from physically or verbally abusing other nonmotorized road users.

Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat:

“What it is saying is this is shared public space. Sonoma County isn’t a place where we tolerate people harassing each other on our public roads.”

However, the jury is still out on whether or not a vulnerable user ordinance will communicate that effectively.

Critics say it doesn’t help to put all the blame on drivers, that bikers should be better educated about traffic laws and that there are already laws in place to protect bicyclists and pedestrians from injury.

Proponents counter that there are no laws that protect non-motorists from physical or verbal abuse. They argue that in a region where biking – and traffic – are on the rise, such laws are necessary.

Bill Oetinger, Santa Rosa Cycling Club ride director, told the Press Democrat:

“It’s pushing the conversation. That’s the thing we want to do more than nailing anyone in court.”

Sebastopol, Sunnyvale, Berkeley, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. have yet to see a case filed under the ordinance, but Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition records show a decline in harassment reports made by bikers since the city’s ordinance went into effect.

In order to pass, the proposal needs a majority vote from the Board of Supervisors. A hearing that includes public comment will take place Tuesday at 8:30 a.m.

A formal vote could seal the deal at the board’s next meeting on March 19.