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US states could make it illegal to harass cyclists

BikeRadar.com: US states could make it illegal to harass cyclists

By Richard Peace

Moves are afoot in the US to make harassment of cyclists illegal (© boogieelephant - Fotolia.com)
Laws forbidding the harassment of cyclists could make it into the statute books if plans in Mississippi and Los Angeles come to fruition – following in the wake of similar legislation passed in other US states and cities in 2009.

Mississippi cyclists have been pushing for such bike-friendly legislation for three years, and next year they anticipate success at last. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, a similar law seems to be making steady progress ahead of a crucial vote in January 2010.

If passed, the Mississippi bill will give riders protection from harassment by motorists, but it will also set out responsibilities for cyclists, such as using hand signals, having the proper equipment (ie. lights) and not riding more than two abreast.

Rich Adair, former president of the state’s Jackson Metro cycling club, said harassment was common. "We’re competing for the same space, and cars see us as competition," he said. "We have a problem with cars swerving at us or having items thrown at us."

One criticism of the proposed law is that it would fail to define a legal minimum passing distance – something that is already in force elsewhere in the US (see below).

Los Angeles City Council’s transportation committee has also been considering a ’bicyclist anti-harassment ordinance’, which is likely to be voted on in January 2010.

A good summary of the need for such a law came from council member Bill Rosendahl, who said: "... As more people use bicycles, there has been an increase in the number of clashes between cyclists and automobiles. Bicyclists report that they have been bumped off the road, screamed at by drivers and had objects thrown at them. Occasionally, these situations have resulted in serious verbal altercations and physical assaults."

Across the US, pro-cycling laws have been bolstered in several other states this year. In May, the Colorado Bike Safety Bill was passed, which made harassing cyclists – harassing is defined as ’projecting any missile’, and that can be an object or substance – a Class 2 misdemeanour and requires motorists to give cyclists 3ft of clearance when passing.

The legislation says cyclists must ride as far right as they feel is safe, and may pass one another or ride side-by-side if they are not impeding normal traffic movement.

The town of Columbia, Missouri also passed anti-harassment laws in 2009. In addition to the ’missile’ offence there are also laws relating to threatening behaviour, sounding a horn or shouting and any other conduct that ’creates a risk of death or serious physical injury’ to a cyclist. Harassment here is classed as a Class A misdemeanor.

For those not familiar with US law, misdemeanors are a lesser form of criminal offence (felonies being the more serious). However, Columbia’s Class A misdemeanor offence carries a stiff fine or up to a year in jail.

Have you suffered harassment simply because you are a cyclist – whichever side of the Atlantic you are? Would protective laws help, and if so what kind? Let BikeRadar know your views below...