Sunnyvale Latest City to Consider Anti-Harassment Law for Bike Riders

A groundbreaking law adopted in Los Angeles almost one year ago that allows bicycle riders to take civil action against drivers who harass them continues to generate local and national interest, with Sunnyvale becoming the latest city to consider enacting protections.

“So many (drivers) seem to think it’s like basketball rules: no hit, no foul. If they don’t hit you, they don’t think they’re doing anything wrong,” said Kevin Jackson, a longtime member of the Sunnyvale Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission (BPAC). “In their minds, it’s not something they feel they have to ever explain to a cop or anything.”

But under a proposed ordinance expected to be adopted by the Sunnyvale City Council on July 17, drivers who threaten or distract bike riders could be taken to court and would have to explain themselves to a judge. Fashioned after the Los Angeles law, it would make drivers liable for damages starting at $1,000.

“Sunnyvale wants to encourage people to ride bicycles rather than drive motor vehicles in order to lessen traffic congestion and improve air quality,” the ordinance states. “Riding a bicycle on City streets poses hazards to bicyclists, and these hazards are amplified by the actions of persons who deliberately harass and endanger bicyclists because of their status as bicyclists.”

Jackson said city staffers, including the police department, were initially opposed to studying the idea based on some misunderstandings. But they eventually agreed to look into it, produced a report that won praise from advocates, and recommended that an anti-harassment law be adopted. The ordinance’s initial reading passed the Sunnyvale City Council June 19 by a vote of 6-1, with Councilmember Jim Davis, an ex-police officer, opposed.

“It would be great if the police could handle these cases but they have many responsibilities and limited resources,” Jackson told the city council. “So, they generally don’t get involved unless a cyclist is seriously injured, or killed, and since our reporting mechanisms show that many of these drivers are repeat offenders, we really need better tools such as this ordinance to dissuade them before they get to that point.”

Supporters of the anti-harassment ordinances say the laws will actually help law enforcement agencies during a time of tight budgets.

“It allows cyclists to take these issues on their own and not even have to deal with police, whether or not they’re friendly toward bicyclists,” said Christopher Kidd, a former LADOT Bicycle Program staffer who is now a planner at Alta Planning + Design in Berkeley. “It allows them to bypass that entire step because it makes it a civil issue rather than a criminal one. That would be beneficial to police because they wouldn’t have to deal with that volume of complaints.”

Advocates we spoke to in Los Angeles and Berkeley, where a similar anti-harassment law was adopted earlier this year, have not yet heard of any cases being filed in the courts.

Jackson, who worked with fellow BPAC member Jim Manitakos to push the ordinance, said education and publicity will be key.

“The success of this ordinance should not be judged solely by the number of lawsuits that result, which will be few,” said Jackson. “In my view, a far more important consideration is the deterrent effect resulting from the message it sends to potentially aggressive drivers who currently believe there will be no consequence for such behavior.”

Sunnyvale would become the third city in the nation to adopt such a measure. A similar law has been introduced in Washington D.C. and is currently winding its way through the committee process, according to the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.

“This is an attempt at leveling the playing field a little bit,” said Jim Brown, the communications director of the California Bicycle Coalition. “We need better traffic laws to prevent this kind of thing, and until we have that an ordinance like this is a creative way at getting at the problem.”

This story is part of Streetsblog San Francisco’s coverage of Silicon Valley. Got a tip or story idea we should be covering in the Silicon Valley? Email bryan@sf.streetsblog.org.