Berkeley Enacts Law to Protect Bicyclists From Driver Harassment

Last week, Berkeley became the second American city to implement an anti-harassment law to protect bicycle riders and allow victims to sue offending drivers in civil court.

Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/ebbc/4625096525/in/set-72157623979589221##EBBC/Flickr##

The ordinance will be followed by an educational campaign later this year, and proponents hope it will garner greater respect towards people cycling on the city’s streets.

“This ordinance is about educating motorists about how to be responsible users of the roadway,” said Dave Campbell, program director for the East Bay Bicycle Coalition (EBBC). “We have roadways that have not been designed for safe bicycle usage by planners and engineers. That in and of itself encourages bicyclists to disobey the rules of the road, because the rules were never written for them, and when motorists start treating cyclists as second-class citizens, that even further encourages [that behavior]. This is about changing that.”

Los Angeles was the first city in the country to adopt a bicyclist anti-harassment law last July, after which L.A. City Council President Eric Garcetti proclaimed: “If L.A. can do it, every city in the country can do it.”

City Council member Kriss Worthington said he was inspired by the L.A. law to help address harassment complaints he’d received from his Berkeley constituents.

“A woman felt that she was being harassed and neither the police nor the district attorney were taking it seriously,” said Worthington. “When I heard that L.A. had adopted this ordinance, I was so excited. This was something that had been in the back of my mind for a couple of years, knowing that the police department is very busy and are focused on preventing violence and major crimes, so the likelihood of getting attention to this was not high, so this seemed like a wonderful idea of a tool to give people to protect themselves.”

The ordinance was passed within three months — “shockingly fast” in Berkeley, where Worthington said legislation can take as long as five or ten years to be adopted. The process was expedited with the help of the EBBC’s Campbell along with Chris Kidd, former author of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation Bike Blog, who had coincidentally just moved to Oakland after organizing the media campaign for the L.A. ordinance.

“The fact that Dave and Chris had answers for all their questions turned it into a unanimous vote,” said Worthington. “The city attorney came back faster than I’ve ever seen on any other ordinance that we’ve ever done. I think the city attorney had based it on what L.A. had done and really looked closely at their paperwork, and that made it so much faster.”

The Berkeley City Council approved the law on January 17, and it went into effect last Thursday. Worthington said he thinks “the benefit of it is primarily going to come from the education, making people stop and think. Having it on the books might prevent some of these things from happening.”

Robert Prinz, a bicycle safety instructor with the EBBC, recalled an instance when a driver put him at serious risk on the pothole-ridden Wildcat Canyon Road in the Berkeley hills.

“As the vehicle passed I felt something sharp sting on my side and then heard the sound of laughter as the car accelerated and pulled ahead,” Prinz wrote in an email to Streetsblog. “I quickly realized that the occupants must have thrown something at me, likely small and not obviously dangerous, but on a street like that with lots of turns and potholes and with some severe drop-offs separated from the road by just a short railing, if I had lost my concentration or balance for just a moment I could easily have been injured or killed.”

Although he couldn’t make out the car’s license plate number and his call to the police was unfruitful, Prinz said he hopes “the very knowledge of the existence of such a law will make some drivers think twice before trying to take advantage of a more vulnerable road user.”

Prinz said that while he didn’t want to “escalate the situation” in his case, he did want the occupants of that car to be held accountable.

“Since I was physically unharmed I didn’t bother looking into it any further, but it still bothers me to this day that had the situation been a tiny bit different the repercussions for me might have been much more severe,” wrote Prinz. “Who knows how many other cyclists that driver may have bullied or antagonized over time, and who knows how many of them ended up with more than just a story to tell like I did?”

In the EBBC’s upcoming winter newsletter, Kidd explains how the legislation would help such victims:

This new ordinance in Berkeley allows bicyclists who are harassed or assaulted to take a driver to civil court. A bicyclist may bring suit against a driver who:

1. Assaults, or attempts to assault, a bicyclist;
2. Threatens to physically injure a bicyclist;
3. Injures, or attempts to injure, a bicyclist;
4. Intentionally distracts a bicyclist with the intent to cause injury; or,
5. Intentionally forces a bicyclist off the roadway.

Everything listed above is already illegal. This ordinance doesn’t create new crimes, but rather addresses the difficulty of seeking recourse. The burden of proof for criminal cases is high. Police officers and public prosecutors have been extremely reluctant to bring charges for what they sometimes consider to be “minor offenses”. Unless a police officer is on-hand to witness the incident, charges are almost never filed.

The ordinance adopted by Berkeley and Los Angeles is groundbreaking because it makes harassment and assault of a bicyclist a civil offense as well as a criminal offence. There is a lower burden of proof for civil cases as the penalties are financial and remedial. Making this harassment a civil offense also puts legal tools directly in the hands of bicyclists, letting them bring suit rather than having to go through the City Attorney’s office in a criminal case.

In the case of a successful civil suit for harassment of a cyclist, a driver will be required to pay:
1. Three times the damages incurred from the offending incident or $1,000, whichever is larger;
2. The attorney’s fees of the plaintiff; and,
3. Any other damages awarded by a civil judge or jury

These awards are essential in making civil suits viable, because they increase the likelihood an attorney will take the case.  The awards also ask as a strong deterrent to wrong behavior on the roadway. Frivolous lawsuits are unlikely, as a harassed or assaulted bicyclist must not only have enough evidence to convince a lawyer to take a case, but also enough evidence to convince a judge or jury. In the six months since the ordinance was enacted in Los Angeles not one case has yet been brought to court.

As cities invest in better bikeways they also need to foster an environment where people will feel safe riding. An “interested, but concerned” rider out for the first time who is harassed simply because they are using the roadway is tempted to give up and not try again. That’s one more car trip that could have been replaced by bicycle, that’s one more car on the morning commute, and that’s one more parking space that is no longer available to others.

Still, not all bicycle advocates are ready to get behind bringing such a law to other cities just yet. San Francisco Bicycle Coalition Deputy Director Kit Hodge said that while the organization is “intrigued by the Berkeley ordinance, as we were with the Los Angeles ordinance, we’re not sure the law as written addresses the real problems of dangerous road users threatening and hurting bike riders and pedestrians.”

“We’re keeping a particularly close eye on the actual impact of these laws on crash rates on the street,” she said.

  • Killer Cars

    What about “get out of my way” horn-honking? That’s really not legal either but people do it all the time.

  • Jason McKinnon

    What about a pedestrian getting harassed by a person on a bike?

  • Anonymous

    Pretty sure that’s not a big problem. Something about not being anonymous behind several tons of steel with hundreds of horsepower in power that keeps any harassment between bicyclists and pedestrians no worse than that between two pedestrians. The problem when it involves cars is the massive difference in speed, power, and weight that is involved.

  • That could fall under point 4: “intentional distraction”.

  • ubringliten

    It’s going to be difficult to get proof especially when injuries are not involved.  It is going to be his/her words against yours.  But it is still a step forward to protect cyclists.

  • John

    Strange comment from the SFBC’s Deputy Director…” Intrigued” by the LA and Berkeley ordinances, and “…Not sure that the law addresses the problem.” It certainly seems better than nothing, particularly if it is tied to an educational campaign. I welcome anything that might help to protect me against the crappy driving I encounter every day. I was musing just today, after avoiding yet another “right hook” collision, how screwed up it is that I have to be constantly vigilant to protect myself against injury at the hands of negligent, distracted, or aggressive drivers. At age 63, I take the threat of injury very seriously, and would welcome an ordinance like those enacted in LA and Berkeley. If the San Francisco version is improved in some way, that would be great; but let’s get past just “being intrigued.”

    time you get on bike you are in danger of being put in the ho

  • James Brown

    When pedestrians start getting killed and mutilated by cyclists than I think that is something that should be address in a legal framework.

  • Charles_Siegel

    You are using the word “harassed” loosely, to mean any pedestrian who is endangered or annoyed by a bike.

    This law applies to deliberate harassment, such as throwing something at a bicyclist.  I have never seen a bicyclist throw anything at a pedestrian, but I have had a driver throw a bottle at me while I was bicycling.

    You can be sure that bicyclists are endangered or annoyed by cars one thousand times for every time they are harassed.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I would like to thank Kriss Worthington for his work on this.  As I remember, I sent email to the BFBC list about the LA ordinance, and Kriss immediately responded that he would like to do the same thing in Berkeley.  Thanks, Kriss.

  • Guest

    So long as the SFBC is the gatekeeper to bike policy, cyclist safety on our streets is going to be a DIY affair.

  • Anonymous

    The East Bay Bicycle Coalition and the Bicycle Friendly Berkeley Coalition can handle Berkeley just fine without any leadership from the SFBC, thank you very much.

    However, considering that all of these organizations are non-profits which are reliant on volunteers for the bulk of their operations, I would say that they are actually DIY by design. If you don’t like the direction the SFBC is taking you can easily get involved and help set their course.

  • Guest

    The SFBC is not structured in a manner that lends itself to the membership having any meaningful say in policies or priorities.  The professionals on staff don’t trust the membership and know that they know best.

  • Kevin

    That’s the same things as saying – if you don’t like the way SFMTA is run, “just get involved”. Both organizations are alienating because they are hierarchical and based on “expertise” that people have to spend 8-10 years of schooling to obtain. I don’t see everyday people getting involved in this process or taken very seriously.

  •  I’ve personally be involved in several issues that SFBC helped out on but which were primarily member driven and had excellent results. Sometimes “we” don’t get our way, but a lot of the time we get our way primarily due to support from SFBC.

    1) Bikes on Board
    2) Parklets in Noe Valley
    3) SFO bike lane improvements.

  • Guest

    HOW ABOUT PUTTING LICENSE PLATES ON THOSE BIKES ?
    the law will never stand up in state or federal court

  • fran haselsteiner

    the other day, as I was pulling into a parking lot with my turn signal on, a woman on a bike cut in front of me. I am already a reluctant driver, and she totally upset me. Bicyclists need to act responsibly. The other day, at the intersection of Dwight and San Pablo, an impatient cyclist went against the light and went between cars and got hit. It was not the driver’s fault, and fortunately no one or nothing got injured. But cyclists really need to take responsibility.

  • Dan

    Would I need to be video recording my ride? How does a bicyclist prove it?

  • Tizzielish

    Since my bike was stolen, I have not been able to bike ride in Berkeley but when I did have a bike, I used it almost daily

    Almost daily at least one driver would pull up behind me, apparently angry that I was not going as fast as a car, and honked as if they expected me to get out of their way, which I never did. I have a right to ride on the street.

    It is particularly irritating to drivers, it seems, when a bicyclists gets in a left turn lane to make a legal left turn. Yet if I were to make a left turn from a through-traffic lane or from anywhere but the left turn lane, I would be breaking the law.

    Usually, when a driver honked at me to speed up or get out of their way, I slowed down as slow as I could go. sometimes, I confess, I flipped the bird

    I hope this law has a budget to educate drivers who think cars own the road in priority above bikers. Cars do not own the road. Read the state law on rules of the road. Bikers have a right to use the streets and roads, folks.

  • Tizzielish

    You are unfamiliar with the law if you think simply insisting that Berkeley drivers enforce what already is CA law would not ‘stand up’ in court. Federal court would have nothing to do with it unless someone wanted to waste a lot of money paying a lawyer to file a useless law suit.

    Local roads are guided by local law. You appear Guest to be ignorant of the law or else the victim of dreamy, wishful thinking about the law, esp. with fantasies about federal courts and their power over local issues.

  • Tizzielish

    This is a sincere suggestion: I know I would have been able to have many drivers prosecuted if I had a video attached to my bike helmet, recording the aggression of drivers who, going 30+ miles an hour would get within inches of me and my bike, seemingly oblivioius to the fact that their thousands of pounds of car could kill me if they got just a couple inches closer and ran me down. A video camera on my helmet wounds good. And I believe such cameras are cheap. how about a bike helmet with a slot for an iphone with video ability?!!!

  • Tizzielish

    Kudos to Worthington but it was already a violation of state law, which gives bicyclists the legal right to use streets and roads (not expressways, usually) and already illegal to harass bikers that drivers didn’t like having on the street.

  • Tizzielish

    Lest we forget, a bicyclist killed a pedestrian while flying thorugh an interesection in SF just last year.

    Too many bikers ignore the rules of the road, fly through stop signs, ignore the fact that pedestrians in walk ways have the right of way, etc. It works both ways: if bicyclists want protection from harassment, they have to stop harassing, and esp stop disregarding yield-for-pedestrians, stop for stop signs and lights, etc.

    I cross Shattuck constantly, for I live a block off Shattuck right down town. At least once a day, I miss getting mowed down within a few inches by a bicyclist ignoring a traffic law. Ticket those bikers, please. And I am a biker.

  • murphstahoe

    Lest we forget, that was not harassment. It was a traffic violation, for which that cyclist was run up for felony vehicular manslaughter.

  • murphstahoe

    Unfortunately the PD are worthless in enforcement. This gives the cyclists another tool which might be of value.

  • Tizzielish

    This is off topic, involving rural roads, and it’s a 35 year old story. Once while in grad school, I drove from Chicago to South Dakota and back with my mom and aunt in a Winnebago. They wanted me mostly for driving.

    On the drive home, in MN, we came upon one pair of bicyclists. Many days of driving and we ran into bikers once. My mom and aunt startwed squaking about how the bikers were impeding traffic, although our Winnebago was the only other moving vehicle, besides, the bike, as far as the eye could see. We were not on a freeway, visiting a farmer relative in rural MN.

    I pointed out that in about five days of long distance driving we had run into bicyclists once, hardly an inconvenience. For once my mom and aunt agreed with me and shut the heck up about the bikers. They even waved politely as I pulled the Winnebago past them, when passing was allowed, and the bicyclists, unaware of the venom previously seeping in our camper, waved back with smiles.

    There is room for everyone. Slow down and be kind to fellow humans.

    I never ride a bike in the city without hearing a honk-get-out-of-my-way. As noted before, I slow down as slow as I can go without falling down on the bike. These irritating honkers are not so stupid, so far, as to run me over and risk that liability!

  • murphstahoe

    I know I would have been able to have many drivers prosecuted if I had a video attached to my bike helmet

    There are tens of thousands of such videos on YouTube. A vanishingly small number of those drivers have been prosecuted.

  • Berkeley driver

    I absolutely respect bicyclists. I have been one and ride occasionally now. Howwver I have had bicylists cut me off, cross in pedestrian cross walks in front of me without pause, run stop and red lights in front of me, ride the wrong way down a street or on the wrong side of the street, etc. I have been threatened several times for tooting my horn at these dangerous and rude situations. I have had them threaten to break my windows, swear and gesture while my child was in the car. Where is my protection? It goes both ways. Yes they are more at risk but that doesn’t give them license to be a**holes

  • Fran w.

    I mostly ride my bike, very occasionally drive. As both a biker and a driver I have seen the majority of cyclists completely ignore the rules of the road. Why do you think drivers are harassing cyclists? Because many cyclists are rude and dangerous. So much so that car drivers have been “trained” to allow bikes to run stop signs on a regular basis. And the self righteous and entitlement of many bikers is sickening. I guarantee if bikers began following the laws, we would not need a harassment law. Remember, all rights come with responsibilities to uphold your part. Follow the laws, people! Stop being a menace. I find that drivers are thoroughly confused by me because I follow the laws. They are expecting all bikers to run stop signs and traffic lights and are terrified of hitting someone. The situation in Berkeley is highly annoying and dangerous. From my perspective, I really do think the poor behavior is usually on the end of the bicyclist.

  • fire lion

    STFU

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