By Paul Payne, The Press Democrat
Bicycle advocates unveiled a proposed local ordinance Friday meant to arm cyclists and pedestrians with new legal ammunition against drivers who intentionally threaten and harass them.
The proposal from the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition would make it easier for “vulnerable users” to sue drivers in civil court. It defines various forms of harassment and triples monetary penalties, making cases more attractive to attorneys.
It’s intended to fill perceived gaps in criminal prosecution, which has a higher standard of proof and requires such things as as the positive identification of the driver.
The proposal was announced outside the county courthouse before hearings for two drivers charged with hitting cyclists.
“We shouldn’t be afraid to be out on the public roadways,” said Gary Helfrich, bicycle coalition executive director.
Helfrich said the proposal, called the Vulnerable Road User Protection Ordinance, is modeled on one adopted in Los Angeles last year.
The coalition plans to submit its proposal to the county Board of Supervisors and the city councils in the county’s nine cities.
It has received early support from Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who asked that the proposal include a provision covering pedestrians.
Zane on Friday cited a spate of accidents over the past two years, including the Rohnert Park crosswalk death of 2-year-old Calli Murray, who was hit December 2010 by a driver who was texting.
She also mentioned the June 8 hit-and-run crash involving Sonoma State University professor Steve Norwick, who died of injuries he suffered while riding on Petaluma Hill Road. The suspect, Robert Cowart, was in court Friday for a mental competency hearing, where another doctor was ordered to review the case.
In the second case Friday, Oakmont resident Harry E. Smith was charged with attempted murder. He is accused of trying to run down a cyclist, chasing him onto a golf course in the alleged Aug. 15 road-rage incident.
As a cyclist who has experienced trucks driving too closely and horn blasts that sent her to the shoulder, Zane said she recognizes the need for the ordinance.
“I like the idea in principle,” she said of the draft ordinance. “What I like most is the message it sends, which is Sonoma County is not going to tolerate aggression toward pedestrians or cyclists.”
The proposal will be vetted by county lawyers, the district attorney and the sheriff before going up for a board vote before the end of the year, Zane said.
“I’d like to be the one to put it forward before my chairmanship is up,” she said.
Law enforcement leaders said they understand the concerns of cyclists and would be reviewing the proposed language before making any recommendations.
“I support anything that encourages heightened awareness on the part of anyone using the roadway,” District Attorney Jill Ravitch said.
Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm said pursuing a criminal case against aggressive drivers requires a level of evidence that cyclists don’t always have. The proposal appeared to enhance the ability to go after someone in civil court, he said.
“If this changes behavior, I’d be all for it,” he said.
The proposal lists prohibited activities, some of which are covered under criminal law. It says a person can’t assault or attempt to assault a rider or walker nor can they threaten physical harm.
It also says drivers can’t intentionally distract or attempt to distract “vulnerable users,” pass at an unsafe distance, force someone off the road or fail to yield.
Anyone who violates the ordinance would be subject to triple any actual damages or $1,000, whichever is greater, and must pay attorney fees. In addition, a jury or judge could award punitive damages.
Some of the dozen people who gathered outside the courthouse Friday morning said harassment and aggression from drivers was a regular occurrence. They reported having things thrown at them from cars and people swerving toward them. One person said someone shot at him.
Civil attorney David “Max” Beach, who addressed the crowd, said harassment does not require physical contact. Horn honking that leads to injury could be a violation, he said.
“This ordinance will really help level the playing field,” Beach said.
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