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Healdsburg City Council deadlocks on cyclist, pedestrian protection ordinance

Published: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, May 6, 2013 at 9:52 p.m.

A proposed ordinance that defines bicyclists as “vulnerable users” and makes it easier for them to sue motorists that harass or assault them failed to gain support Monday from a deadlocked Healdsburg City Council.

The four council members present were divided 2-2 on the need for an ordinance, which has been urged by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition in response to a number of high-profile incidents involving cyclists and pedestrians hurt or killed in Sonoma County.

But skeptics said the Vulnerable User ordinance goes too far in favor of cyclists, for which it is primarily designed.

“It sets up a special class,” said Councilman Gary Plass, who voted to reject it along with Councilman Shaun McCaffery.

“I acknowledge a problem. I don't think this ordinance will cure it. It's all about education and people learning to co-exist,”” Plass said

Councilman Tom Chambers, who sponsored the ordinance, said “it makes a clear commitment to supporting pedestrians and cyclists. There doesn't seem much of a downside.”

And he said there could potentially be a lot of economic gain, reinforcing the city's image as a bicycling Mecca, drawing two-wheel enthusiasts from far and wide. Councilman Jim Wood also was willing to support an ordinance with some modifications, such as dropping a provision allowing cyclists to collect triple damages if they prevail in a lawsuit against someone who harasses them.

Even though the ordinance failed to gain sufficient support, it isn't dead in Healdsburg. Council members on a 3-1 vote, Plass dissenting, agreed to bring it back for discussion when the full five-member council is present, for a definitive vote. Mayor Susan Jones was absent Monday.

The Bicycle Coalition is in the midst of the campaign to get Sonoma County and its cities county to adopt an ordinance, similar to laws passed in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Sunnyvale and Washington D.C. It makes it easier for a cyclist or pedestrian to bring a lawsuit and collect damages if they are harassed or assaulted. Advocates say it will act as a deterrent and make it safer for the so-called vulnerable users.

Sebastopol and the County of Sonoma passed versions of the new law. Santa Rosa City Council members expressed support for an ordinance, but have not yet taken formal action.

The Windsor Town Council last month rejected the need for one, saying it would not necessarily make cyclists safer and could lead to frivolous lawsuits.

But the Vulnerable User ordinance has also hit a raw nerve with critics who talk of cyclists who blow through stop signs or ride two- and three-abreast of each other, making it difficult for cars to overtake them.

“They have to show respect to autos and trucks and move over,” said Richard Cafferata, who said he narrowly avoided a head-on collision with an oncoming vehicle because of cyclists who wouldn't move out of the way.

He also told the Healdsburg City Council that bike riders should be required to have a bike license and registration so they can be easily identified and also have insurance in the event they run into a vehicle “and scratch it up.”

Rich Bottarini, a Healdsburg resident and a member of the Bicycle Coalition, said “bicyclists aren't perfect. I get frustrated when they don't obey laws and show common courtesy.”

He said harassment of cyclists “doesn't occur very often. But when it does, it can be very dangerous.”

The Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition has recorded more than 160 incidents of bike rider harassment between 2006 and 2012 and believes half of those are legitimate cases. The coalition said they include cases where cyclists were physically attacked, forced off the road, had objects thrown at them, or were groped.

Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke noted that state law carries criminal penalties for assault, injury, attempted assaults and threats and even attempting to force a cyclist or pedestrian off the road. And he said many of those acts could result in civil liability.

“We don't need this ordinance,” said Plass who noted there have been no reported harassment incidents in Healdsburg.

But the bicycle coalition says say criminal prosecution has a higher standard of proof, such as requiring positive identification of the driver.

And supporters of the vulnerable user ordinance say it clearly defines what harassment is and makes it easier for vulnerable users to file a lawsuit against violators to collect triple damages, attorney fees and punitive damages.

But opponents said it is too one sided, allowing only vulnerable users to collect attorney fees for example and not whomever prevails in the lawsuit, including the motorist.

“It may increase the bad blood” between cyclist and motorists, said Councilman McCaffery

Under the proposed ordinance, harassment is defined as physical assault or attempted assault; verbal threats of assault; 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.

Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, said the ordinance would not apply to rude behavior. “Calling someone a jerk or giving them a one finger salute – that's not harassment,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com

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