Can you legislate a culture shift, using the law to change the way drivers perceive cyclists? That was was one of the questions that a D.C. Council committee pondered yesterday as it heard the testimony of cyclists who had been hit or harassed by drivers and debated whether legislation or stricter enforcement would foster the acceptance of the two-wheeled on District roads.
The hearing was called to deal with proposed legislation that would make it easier for cyclists to pursue civil cases against drivers that assault, intimidate or harass them while on the road. The legislation, which is modeled on a law passed by the Los Angeles City Council this summer, was spurred by the now famous video of a local cyclist being yelled at and knocked to the ground by a pickup truck on Rhode Island Avenue in late August.
Evan Wilder, the victim of that accident — or attack, depending on whose side you’re on — testified that while he had suffered injuries from the accident, the driver of the truck was only charged with leaving the scene of an accident. Moreover, Wilder said, he did not have the money to pursue a civil case against the driver. (Civil cases are the proposed law’s central component — under its provisions, possible damages and fees would increase, thus encouraging lawyers to take the cases.)
Opponents of the law claim that it would unfairly put cyclists in a protected class offered to few other groups. But according to the law’s supporters, that’s the point. Councilmember Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) said that cyclists regularly face vehicular hostility on the District’s roads, criminal charges are rarely sought when accidents do happen and civil penalties are too low to encourage lawsuits as a means of seeking justice.
“This will serve as a signal to the minority of motorists who are hostile to cyclists that aggressive behavior will no longer be tolerated in the District,” Wells said, reserving a special comment for taxicab drivers, who he said are particularly oblivious or intolerant of cyclists.
For Councilmember Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), the law would help the District “shift away from a car-centric culture,” a process that she recognized would take a long time and would likely provoke heated debates, both on and off the road. The proposal, she argued, would be “one step along a path towards a new culture, a new sensitivity” towards cyclists.
But the cycling advocates at the hearing said that until that culture shift is complete — and we’re likely a few years away from it — enhanced protections are needed for cyclists.
“We acknowledge that that this is not the perfect tool to fix the entire system. But it presents a major step forward by providing cyclists some recourse and the opportunity to pursue assault claims that would otherwise end without legal consequences for the assaulter,” said Shane Farthing, executive director of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.
Councilmember Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who chaired the hearing, has remained on the fence regarding the legislation, acknowledging that relations between cyclists and drivers remain tense, but stressing that police should improve their enforcement of existing laws. After a hearing on the issue in February, the D.C. Office of Police Complaints published a report in September arguing that police should be better versed in cycling laws and more carefully investigate accidents when they happen. Assistant Chief Patrick Burke of the Metropolitan Police Department testified yesterday that police were working harder to increase enforcement, and that he supported any enhanced tools that could be offered — including the proposed harassment law.
Whether or not the law passes, the culture shift is long overdue for Ruth Rowan, the mother of Alice Swanson, a cyclist who was killed while riding her bike in Dupont Circle in July 2008. Rowan testified that while her daughter was drug-tested by police after the incident, the driver of the truck was not — and his employer merely paid a fine of $1,008 for not complying with a law that he be tested within 72 hours. (The driver had a checkered record and was eventually deported.)
“Until injuries to bicyclists and pedestrians are taken seriously by MPD and drivers are held accountable, the streets are not safe for our children, our husbands, our sisters,” Rowan said in her testimony.
As a means to make police better understand the challenges faced by cyclists, Rowan proposed that they become cyclists themselves.
“I’d like to see every police officer spend three months on a bicycle…because they’re going to come back and say, ‘Oh my God, this is really terrible,'” she said.