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Sonoma County Board of Supervisors look at stronger cyclist protection

A cyclist keeps an eye on traffic in Sebastopol as he heads south on Main Street .

Jeff Kan Lee / PD file photo
Published: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 4:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 at 4:39 p.m.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously endorsed studying a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue drivers who intentionally threaten and harass them.

The board backed a recommendation to spend up to $5,000 to study the proposal, with the intent to possibly bring it back later for a vote.

The ordinance would define various forms of harassment against cyclists and pedestrians and would triple monetary penalties, making such cases more attractive to attorneys.

Supporters say it could help rein in hostility toward cyclists and pedestrians and afford those road users the ability to recoup damages not currently available in civil court.

"It increases access to justice," said Sandra Lupien, outreach director for the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, the advocacy group promoting the ordinance.

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

Several supervisors said they could see the concept working in Sonoma County, pending the outcome of the study. The item was on the board's morning consent calendar and prompted little deliberation from supervisors. Only one speaker, Lupien, added her comment before the vote.

Critics of so-called "vulnerable user" ordinances say they are unnecessary and duplicative, citing laws already in place to punish those convicted of serious car-vs.-bike crimes. A new law targeting minor incidents risks meddling in cases best governed by current civil code, critics say.

But bicycle advocates say those cases are infrequently filed, despite harassment and intimidation that they say is widespread.

Their prime example is an Aug. 16 alleged road-rage incident in which police said an Oakmont man tried to run down a cyclist by chasing him onto a golf course with his car.

The cyclist, Santa Rosa restaurant owner Toraj Soltani, 48, suffered a broken wrist and other injuries when he was struck by the car, authorities said.

The driver, Harry Smith, 82, faces charges including attempted murder, assault with a deadly weapon and hit and run driving.

Lupien told supervisors that cyclists have reported to her group being the target of thrown soda cans and beer bottles, slaps on the back and threatening gunfire. Serious crashes can result from such hazards, she said.

"Harassment is a real problem," Lupien said. "This is an important public safety issue."

County law enforcement, transportation and administrative staff are set to study the proposal and make a recommendation to the Board of Supervisors.

The matter could come back to the board within 60 days.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett. wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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