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

Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/bike/##Richard Masoner, Cyclelicio.us##

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. 

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like a 1st Amendment case waiting to happen.  And unless there is a witness, it’s just going to be a case of “he said, she said” meaning more useless laws cluttering up the books. The only reason its being done is because of pressure from bicyclists.  It gives the city council an opportunity to say “we really, really, don’t approve of motorists harassing bicyclists. so we made a law against it.”  And what about bicyclists harassing motorists? Will they make a law against tha too?

  • Anonymous

    It’s been established, if a cyclist harasses a motorist, the motorist simply runs them over.

    Next

  • Anonymous

    From my understanding this law was enacted for situations in which there enough evidence to prove a civil case, but not enough to prove a criminal case. It covers plenty of legitimate circumstances in which a driver displays overly aggressive and dangerous behavior behind the wheel but fails to actually kill or maim someone. Perhaps this type of civil case would convince them to keep their behavior in check before it results in serious injuries. Or if it doesn’t at least the existing case could be used to prove a history of aggression.

    I doubt many lawyers will be willing to take on a purely “she said, he said” type case, and the fact that there have yet to be any suits brought against drivers via the law bears this out. However, I can very easily foresee a situation where a driver responsible for real damages is either not cited or evades a criminal sentence on technicalities, and this law would then at least allow the cyclist to file a civil suit and collect a monetary award to help pay for their recovery.

    If bicyclists are really causing significant damage to motorists as you say, they are welcome to lobby for a similar law as well.

  • Who needs a witness when a hi-def helmet cam is $100? Ask Michael Patrick Medaglia…

  • The 1st does not apply to threatening words or gestures (the “Fighting Words” ruling), and in many cases riders have video and sound recording going for the entire ride. Most do so so that there will be some kind of record like the hit-and-run video of 2 cyclists getting hit that led to an arrest a few months ago in California. The law would cover incidents like that that don’t result in actual contact and a wreck but just an assault with a deadly weapon.

    Unfortunately the current judicial system takes a near-miss with a gun much more seriusly than an actual collision with a car, in spite of the motor vehicle being as much as 2 decimal orders of magnitude more deadly. A gun is statistically 0.45% fatal per trigger pull when used to purposefully kill someone because it’s so hard to hit a vital spot. A motor vehicle can usually hit a cyclist or pedestrian if the driver has any degree of skill, with a fatality rate that runs from 5% at 20 MPH to 99.999% at impact speeds over 60 MPH. The truck that hit me was judged to be going about 60MPH at impact (the bike came to rest against a signpost a quarter of a mile away from the impact) so I’m in that .001% that lives. That tends to color my perspective a bit.

  • mikesonn

    I don’t see how this is a 1st Amendment issue at all?

  • As with the other two Bicyclist Anti-Harassment laws, this one does not create any new crimes.  It simply takes actions that are already illegal under the criminal code and makes them explicitly eligible under the civil code as well.
    There are no rights being downtrodden, there is no nanny-stating going on.  Quite the opposite, this empowers people to face assault and harassment on their own rather than having to wait for the government (law enforcement) to do it for them.

  • Rhond

    drivers with road rage and anger management issues don’t belong on the road. they belong in prison never to see the light of day.

  • SF Driver

    How about the bicyclist who harass motorist just because they think the whole road belongs to them? There are only a few but. I have seen bicyclist harass motorist, more than I have seen motorist harass bicyclist.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    What about the women who rape men?

  • Anonymous

    @sfdriver:disqus You got to be kidding. See @f84b22d3acf35e1589e626b8e51fe1a4:disqus ‘s response.

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