Cyclist Pepper Sprayed by Motorist

The driver of this Cadillac allegedly buzzed and pepper sprayed a cyclist Tuesday. Photo: Danica Helb
The driver of this Cadillac allegedly buzzed and pepper sprayed a cyclist Tuesday. Photo: Danica Helb

Danica Helb, a 35-year-old scientist and researcher at the University of California in San Francisco, was riding her bike on 16th Street Tuesday afternoon from her lab at San Francisco General Hospital to her office in Mission Bay, something she’s done three times a week for the past six years.

Between Mississippi and Owens, the traffic lanes narrow and “you lose the designated bike lane and there’s no shoulder,” she explained. That’s where a black Cadillac squeezed past at high speed within “six inches,” she said. That, despite the fact that there was ample space in the next lane and several other cars had just passed safely.

The incident left her shaken, so she glided a few car lengths ahead to where the Cadillac had stopped at a red light. She knocked on the window. The driver said “Go away, I’m not talking to you.” Helb replied: “Excuse me, you have to give cyclists three feet when passing, please be more careful.”

At that point the driver, whom Helb described as an African America woman, 45-to-55, and heavy set, started screaming. She rolled down the window and shouted “You better get out of here!” as she pulled out a spray can. Helb backed off. But the driver sprayed anyway. She dodged most of the orange mist, but the wind managed to waft some of it towards her. “It got into my throat and eyes,” she said. But she managed to get a photograph of the license plate.

Two witnesses came forward and gave Helb contact information. One of them, who asked only to be identified as Sarah, spoke with Streetsblog. “The cyclist was really shaken up and surprised,” she said. “It was unwarranted the way she was treated by the person in the vehicle.”

Unwarranted and illegal, stressed Andy Gillin, an attorney with the Bay Area firm GJEL. “It could well be a felony. It’s at least a misdemeanor assault,” he said.

The question is, will the San Francisco Police treat it as such?

Helb filed a police report. Carlos Manfredi, a spokesman for SFPD, said an inspector is assigned to the case and will start investigating. “He will reach out to the victim, get more details, reach out to the witnesses as well,” he said.

But going by past experience, Chris Cassidy, a spokesman for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, doesn’t have confidence. “The SFPD’s leadership can find hundreds of officer-hours for cracking down on people biking. When you hand the SFPD witnesses’ accounts and license plate numbers, however, they can’t find the time to investigate allegations of assaults against SF Bicycle Coalition members like Danica Helb and Maxwell Wallace ,” he said.

Gillin, meanwhile, said the way to make sure the police investigate is to bring the incident to the attention of bike-friendly San Francisco Supervisors, which Streetsblog did. “We expect SFPD to investigate allegations of assault in all its seriousness, regardless of whether the charge comes from a bicyclist, a car driver, or anyone,” said Ivy Lee, a spokeswoman for Supervisor Jane Kim. “That’s their job and they should do it.”

Manfredi said that’s what’s happening. And while he recommends against confronting drivers, he praised Helb. “She was right to get the license plate and witnesses.”

Helb, meanwhile, said she’ll continue to bike to her appointments. “It’s important to let drivers know when they’re being unsafe,” she said, adding “I’m still going to call them on it.”

Note: GJEL is a Streetsblog sponsor.

  • @Jimbo – You apparently have no idea what “hate speech” means. Perhaps you should do some research from more reliable sources than your pals Dolph and Kearney.

  • @Prinzrob – When opportunity knocks, mace it.

  • gneiss

    Yes, barely governed, just like this cyclist:

  • C’mon Chris, we all know that “35 year old female scientist” is politically correct jargon for violent predator.

  • murphstahoe

    Please show any cases where someone was charged for banging on a car window.

  • rodzzz

    Tapping on a window is not violent, to interpret this as violent you have to have an ENORMOUS bias against the cyclist on top of suffering from severe cognitive dissonance.

  • rodzzz

    LOL to interpret a tap on your window as an ‘attack’ you must have an intense bias against the cyclist, suffer from serious cognitive dissonance, and overall just be a total dummy who shouldn’t be allowed to operate any sort of vehicle on the road.

  • PaleoBruce

    > The licensing of bicyclists by municipality is legal in California (and other states)

    An interesting question, and technically true, but I have read Bob Mionske who argues convincingly that there is solid court precedence that criteria for denial of a bicycle license would require meeting heighten ‘strict scrutiny’ standards, and be not easy to do. In short, the courts have found that humans have a Constitutionally protected right to use public roads. Based on the right to petition the federal government in person, hence the right to travel interstate. Because not everyone can afford a bus ticket, and that automobile licenses are deniable (to children, to drunks, etc..), then bicycle licenses (or horse carriage) cannot be denied for any reason that doesn’t meet strict scrutiny standards.

    In short, bicyclists have a Constitutionally protected right to use the road.

  • Moral of the story: do NOT try to directly engage motorists who violate rights. Just catch plate numbers, ride with a camera (or two), and file a complaint later.

    Second moral of the story: the three foot law has holes that would almost certainly have let the driver off anyway.

  • p_chazz

    It is if her clientele share her disdain for bicyclists.

  • Timothy53

    She can come forward and offer her story. Granting her unwarranted anonymity will never result in us hearing her story nor any police scrutiny of her crime.

  • SF Guest

    If you practiced this in Oakland I think you would change your tune quickly.

  • neroden

    Politely confronting people about their bad behavior is almost always a good idea. How else are we going to have a functioning society?

    It’s quite clear the police aren’t going to do it for us!

  • neroden

    If we follow your argument, if you are dealing with a violent assailant like this motorist, it’s more appropriate to pull a gun and kill the motorist dead in self-defense.

    But I think it’s more reasonable to assume that the motorist was acting out of ignorance or negligence and ask her to be more careful rather than going directly to killing her in self defense.

  • neroden

    If you are (a) an employee of the bank, and (b) you know from their history that the police certainly aren’t going to do anything about the bank robbery, you are DAMN WELL GOING TO TRY TO STOP THE BANK ROBBERY.

    Consider that this analogy is perfect in this case.

  • neroden

    Q: What do you call a police force which breaks laws instead of enforcing them?
    A: NYPD

    (OK, someone follow up with an LAPD or LASD joke please?)

  • Doug Miller

    The only Realty Company with possible initials of DS that I could find would be Dream SF Real Estate. Although a search for agents with those initials might give better results.

    In the end, I don’t expect any results from the @SFPD. Best choice of action for cyclists is to ride in groups of 2-3 and take the lane. Doing otherwise is generally unsafe, bike lane or not. And cyclists have full right not to ride as far to the right as possible if conditions are unsafe.

  • Timothy53

    How, from that article can you possibly THINK happened due to anger hostility and loud words. None of that bullshit is in evidence. You can believe it. You can fell it. But you cannot possibly THINK it. Add to that you are an unthinking troll,, well, that closes the loop.

  • Timothy53

    And what precipitated that reaction? Surely it had something to do with aggressive driving by someone who was certain they could getr away with it.

  • Timothy53

    The question for you to answer was: “How is knocking on a window an attack?” You answer was a question which is not an answer and it suggested that the question was something that it was not in the first place. billdav did not ask “Why was the cyclist attacked for a friendly knock.” Your return query suggests that he did.

    So I ask again: “How is knocking on a window an attack?”

  • Judas

    I feel threatened by anyone who bangs on my windows and screams at me. Do you think females cant be violent? Do you think females dont pose a threat to you?

  • Austin Bennett

    If you read my comments below, you’d know that my statement wasn’t really about females, but by bicyclists in general.

    You’re in a car. You can press the gas pedal and ZOOOM you’re gone. The threat is behind you, literally. There’s no point in spraying the bicyclist with pepper spray because they are not a threat.

    Even if the bicyclist had a gun, the worst they can do is shoot out a window.

    You’re giving bicyclist more power than they deserve.

  • Austin Bennett


  • Austin Bennett

    Isn’t this the part where they tip their hat?

  • dale71

    Car driver was very rude with their respect of others on the road


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