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Getting tough on hostile drivers

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat: Editorial: Getting tough on hostile drivers

Published: Wednesday, September 5, 2012 

There's reason to question whether having a law making it easier for bicyclists to sue hostile drivers would really make Sonoma County's roads safer in the long run.

But it would make a difference in keeping an important conversation alive — that of how to reduce cycling injuries, particularly those caused by drivers trying to intimidate or harm those on bikes.

Recent events, including the appalling Aug. 15 attack against Toraj Soltani in Oakmont and the June 8 hit-and-run crash that killed Sonoma State University professor Steve Norwick, show something clearly needs to be done. Sonoma County must make it clear that acts of intimidation by drivers are cowardly and won't be tolerated, particularly in a region that is fast becoming known as a mecca for cycling.

For those reasons, we encourage the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and officials from the county's nine cities to take the proposal by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition seriously.

Modeled after laws recently adopted in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C. and Sunnyvale, the proposed law, titled the Vulnerable Road Users Protection Ordinance, would cut down on the obstacles that make it difficult for bicyclists to sue hostile drivers for damages.

The ordinance creates civil remedies that allow victims to seek damages and attorneys' fees. Violators could be required to pay three times the amount of actual damages and could be required to pay punitive damages as well.

The law would provide the same protections for pedestrians, although the body of evidence regarding the harassment of pedestrians by drivers in Sonoma County is thin. Certainly, the region has witnessed a number of horrendous accidents in which pedestrians, including young children, were killed by drivers who were reckless or inattentive. But none of the recent high-profile cases involved drivers who were accused of intentionally running down pedestrians.

Nevertheless, the harassment of bicyclists is a legitimate concern, and we're gratified that local law enforcement officials seem to see it that way.

This was demonstrated on Friday when authorities tacked on an attempted murder charge against Harry E. Smith, the 82-year-old man accused of running down the bike-riding Soltani on an Oakmont golf course. Smith's bail also was increased to $1 million. If convicted, Smith could face more than 12 years in prison.

As this case shows, laws are already in place to punish those accused of the most egregious car-vs.-bike crimes. But it shouldn't take a cyclist being hospitalized or killed before something can be done.

With this ordinance, cyclists will still face a hard climb in winning a civil suit against a harassing driver. But it at least gives them a fighting chance. More important, it puts an end to the perception that drivers can buzz, threaten and toss items at bicyclists in Sonoma County with impunity.

“If this changes behavior, I'd be all for it,” said Santa Rosa Police Chief Tom Schwedhelm.

So are we.