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Sonoma County Ordinance Aims to “Increase Access to Justice” for Bicyclists

The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition (SCBC) has responded to an incident of road rage by focusing attention on bicyclist harassment and working to pass an ordinance to protect harassed bicyclists.

On August 16, bicyclist Toraj Soltani was chased onto a golf course by a motorist with a history of moving violations. The motorist was found thanks, in part, to a harassment reporting system created by the group in 2006 and currently faces criminal charges. As a result, the group launched its “Protect Us All” campaign to preserve and protect Sonoma County as a great place to ride a bike.

Building upon laws passed in Los Angeles, Berkeley, and Sunnyvale, California; as well as Washington D.C., the SCBC drafted an ordinance and is campaigning for its adoption by cities within Sonoma County and by the County. Since beginning the campaign the group has received the endorsement of the editorial staff of the local newspaper; secured $5,000 for a study of the ordinance by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors; and won a public hearing from the Sebastopol City Council in December. In addition, several other cities are looking at the ordinance and may take steps to adopt it, including Windsor and Sonoma, two bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Communities.

The ordinance proposed by SCBC differs significantly from the League’s model vulnerable road user law in that it provides for civil, rather than criminal, action. Sandra Lupien, SCBC’s Outreach Director, says that the ordinance will work because “you don’t even have to file a police report” and will not create additional work for local law enforcement. It supplements other civil laws that might allow a bicyclist to recover for injuries by providing for damages at three times the rate of actual damages, if there’s been a violation based on the behavior listed in the ordinance. This gives an extra incentive for attorneys to represent bicyclists in civil actions.

A bicycle is much cheaper than a car, so collisions tend to result in lower actual damages and attorneys, who usually receive a portion of the damages recovered in a civil suit, are unlikely to represent bicyclists because of the low total of damages from a typical bicycle collision. Bicyclists, and other vulnerable road users, currently lack access to our civil justice system because they are not surrounded by an expensive motor vehicle, laws such as the SCBC’s proposed ordinance address this disparity to access by putting a value on harassing and injuring behavior.

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