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Bicycle Infrastructure

Marin Decision Highlights Urgent Need for State Legislation to Protect Vulnerable Road Users

Matthew Marshall Engle, a Ross motorist who was caught on video threatening to kill a cyclist. Image: Jan Weissenberger

Note: GJEL Accident Attorneys regularly sponsors coverage on Streetsblog San Francisco and Streetsblog California. Unless noted in the story, GJEL Accident Attorneys is not consulted for the content or editorial direction of the sponsored content.

Last February, Jan Weissenberger was riding his bike from the Larkspur Ferry terminal to his home in San Rafael, when, as he was heading north on Ross Common, he was passed close on his right by crazed motorist Matthew Marshall Engle, driving a dark-red SUV. Engle blasted his horn, screamed threats, and backed his car at him.

Weissenberger had a camera mounted on the back of his bike and captured the whole incident (see embedded video below).

"I sent an email with the video to the Ross Police department," said Weissenberger in an interview with Streetsblog. "And then I came in, gave a statement, and then the police department forwarded it to the District Attorney."

"The Marin DA charged the gentleman with reckless driving - a misdemeanor. Thank you to all who have asked about what happened! Ride safe (ride with a bike camera)!!" wrote Weissenberger on his YouTube channel, where he posted the video of the incident.

Months went by. Court dates were set and rescheduled. The DA's office told Weissenberger they were going to offer Engle, a local structural engineer, a plea deal. "They told him he was going to get a fine and his license was going to get suspended for a couple of months," said Weissenberger, who also told Streetsblog that he was fine with the plea deal, because "... he was going to get a pretty bad ding on his record."

But apparently Engle refused to make a deal. And, from his perspective, that turned out to be a good decision. As reported in the Marin Independent Journal, on Dec. 29, Judge Sheila Lichtblau dismissed the case after Engle showed proof that he had obtained anger counseling. Weissenberger never heard from the DA again and learned of the results from the Marin IJ.

"This underscores the need for a statewide anti-harassment law," wrote Jim Elias, Executive Director of the Marin County Bicycle Coalition, in an email to Streetsblog.

There are local ordinances against harassing bicycle riders and other vulnerable road users with a car. Oakland, Berkeley, Sunnyvale, Sebastopol have them. Los Angeles, the first city to have one, passed an ordinance back in 2011.

But they don't work.

Streetsblog couldn't find any examples of the local ordinances being used in California (if someone knows otherwise, please comment below). "I’ve never heard of a case brought under the harassment laws here in L.A. I thought it was a sop when it was passed," wrote Jonathan Weiss, an attorney and safe streets advocate. "I have not heard of any cases being brought to date from either the Oakland or Berkeley anti-harassment ordinances, but there's always the chance that something happened under the radar," said Robert Prinz, Education Director at Bike East Bay.

Streetsblog reached out to lawyers in the Bay Area and was told the only recourse under local harassment ordinances is small claims court (presumably because the dollar amount for the fine is so small that no lawyer will take the case)--but, either way, that requires identifying the driver. Since the DMV won't provide an address from a license plate without a state mandate, that's a dead end. "I didn’t oppose it, but I thought the [anti-harassment] law was a cop out," added Weiss.

That's why the state desperately needs an anti-harassment law to protect cyclists, pedestrians, and everyone else who uses our streets from crazed motorists who just shouldn't be behind the wheel. We shouldn't have to wait until they actually send someone to the hospital or the morgue, if they have already demonstrated, on video no less, that they are psychologically unfit to drive. In 2014, Governor Brown vetoed A.B. 2398, from Mark Levine (D-San Rafael), which would have at least raised fines for violations when certain “vulnerable road users,” including bicyclists and pedestrians, were injured as a result of the violation. Brown’s veto message read: “I think the current laws are sufficient." The League of American Bicyclists also has a model text for vulnerable road user legislation, although these laws, again, deal with incidents that result in injury or death--in other words, after it's too late.

Note that in the video, Engle drives across and then backs through the crosswalk at the intersection with Lagunitas, next to Ross Elementary School. Then at 53 seconds into the YouTube clip, watch Engle's eyes; he never takes them off of Weissenberger as he drives through the crosswalk one last time. Imagine if a group of children had started crossing the street at that moment? Engle was so apoplectic that he would have driven right over them, as he never looked forward once as he pressed the accelerator on his 4,500-pound vehicle. Weissenberger, who recently became a father himself, suspects the proximity to the elementary school had a lot to do with why the DA brought charges in the first place.

It's good that Engle is seeking psychological help, but in the meantime, for the sake of public safety, he must lose his driving privileges. The fact that Lichtblau, who presumably watched the video, still couldn't see that, says much about her and our society's messed up priorities and our dysfunctional legal system when it comes to our streets. Streetsblog urges our lawmakers in Sacramento to do something.

"This is the worst I’ve seen in my commuting, and I’ve been riding a bike for a long time," said Weissenberger, who drives and owns two cars himself, but prefers to bike to and from the ferry for his commute. "I bike to decompress from the day and get some exercise. I was just riding home."

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