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Windsor council rejects ordinance aimed at protecting cyclists

The Press Democrat: Windsor council rejects ordinance aimed at protecting cyclists

By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Published: Wednesday, April 17, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 7:41 a.m.

Windsor Town Council members on Wednesday night rejected a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue people who harass or intimidate them.

While acknowledging the vulnerability of cyclists and people on foot, a majority of council members said it would not necessarily make them safer and could lead to frivolous lawsuits.

"This doesn't solve the behavior," Mayor Robin Goble said. "This just gives more opportunity for people to sue."

She said education and common courtesy will do more to address the problem of unsafe behavior on the part of both motorists and cyclists.

Other than Councilwoman Debora Fudge -- a seasoned cyclist who described an incident where a motorist deliberately cut her off and slammed on the brakes -- there was no support on the council for the "Vulnerable Road User Protection" ordinance urged by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition.

"It missed me by two inches. I could have been killed," she told her colleagues.

But other council members had their doubts that it would be effective.

"There's a lot of bad blood between bicyclists and motorists," said Councilman Steve Allen, who commutes sometimes by bike and has participated in organized cycling rides. "I don't see passing an ordinance as relieving animosity. I see it as potentially worse -- people being more angry about it."

The bicycle coalition is on a campaign to get all nine cities and the county to adopt an ordinance to make it easier for a cyclist or pedestrian to bring a civil lawsuit and collect damages if they are harassed or assaulted. Advocates say it will mainly act as a deterrent.

Sebastopol and the County of Sonoma earlier this year adopted their versions of the new law.

Santa Rosa City Council members, who previously expressed support for a vulnerable user ordinance, will formally consider it next month, as will the Healdsburg City Council.

The push for an ordinance followed a series of vehicle crashes in the county over the past two years that have seriously injured or killed cyclists and pedestrians.

It's patterned after similar ordinances that have been adopted in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Sunnyvale and Washington, D.C.

Supporters say the ordinance is intended to fill gaps in criminal prosecution, which has a higher standard of proof.

It defines what harassment is and sets up a procedure for an injured party, whether it is a cyclist, pedestrian, jogger or skateboard rider, to bring a lawsuit against an aggressor, which could be a motorist or even a cyclist.

Harassment is defined as attempted physical assault or physical assault; verbal threats of assault; intentional injury or attempts to injure; distracting or attempting to distract a bicyclist, pedestrian or others; forcing or attempting to force someone off the street; passing at an unsafe distance of less than 3 feet with intent to intimidate or injure; and failing to yield to a pedestrian walking or running along a road."It would not apply to "someone behaving rudely, or giving a person a one finger salute," said Gary Helfrich , executive director of the county Bicycle Coalition.