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County may allow bicyclist suits against hostile drivers

The Press Democrat: Sonoma County set to study making it easier for bicyclists to sue hostile drivers

By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Published: Monday, November 12, 2012

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors today is expected to endorse studying a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue drivers who intentionally threaten and harass them.

The proposal being pushed by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition would define various forms of harassment against "vulnerable users" and would triple monetary penalties, making such cases more attractive to attorneys.

Supporters hope the ordinance would rein in hostility toward cyclists and pedestrians and would reduce the number of injuries and incidents.

"This is about sending a message that we take care of our bicyclists and pedestrians and protect them," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a cyclist who supports the idea of a safety ordinance and brought the matter before the board.

Supervisors today are only set to decide whether the concept merits further study and any discussion probably will be limited. A vote on an ordinance would come later, possibly within 60 days.

Critics have said a new county law is unnecessary and duplicative. They say laws already are in place to punish those convicted of serious car-vs.-bike crimes and any ordinance targeting minor incidents risks meddling in a murky area of law.

But bicycle advocates say harassment and intimidation can lead to harm, including crashes for cyclists and medical bills -- expenses they say are difficult to recoup under the current civil code.

"Let's say somebody does something -- runs you off the road. Your bicycle is badly damaged," said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, an advocacy group.

If the motorist makes no contact with the rider and drives on, the incident is unlikely to be looked at by police as a hit and run, Helfrich said.

"Right now, that is a problem," he said. "This (ordinance) would let you recover your loss and get triple damages."

Similar laws have been adopted in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Berkeley and Sunnyvale.

Local bicycle advocates picked up the proposal this summer after a spate of fatal and serious car crashes in the county involving cyclists and pedestrians.

One of the more high-profile incidents resulted in an attempted murder charge against Harry Smith, 82, of Oakmont, who is accused of trying to run down a cyclist by chasing him on to a golf course with his car.

"That was so out of the box," Helfrich said of the alleged Aug. 15 road-rage incident.

The cyclist, Santa Rosa restaurant owner Toraj Soltani, 48, suffered a broken wrist and other injuries. He is suing Smith for damages, including $140,000 in unpaid medical bills.

Some local police officials have expressed support for a rule change that improves road safety and reduces the perception of impunity for hostile drivers.

The Sebastopol City Council is to take up the proposal Nov. 20, and it is under review by city officials in Rohnert Park, Santa Rosa and Cloverdale, the bicycle coalition said.

The group's leaders hope support from the Board of Supervisors will lead to the proposal's adoption in all of the county's nine cities.