California drivers who hit and injure cyclists or other "vulnerable road users" could be slapped with fines of up to $1,000 under legislation proposed this week by a North Coast lawmaker.
The fines would represent as much as a 10-fold increase over current penalties, and according to Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, would lead to fewer collisions between bikes and vehicles.
Levine said the stricter penalties sought in AB 2398 would "protect" cyclists by discouraging distracted driving. The bill also covers pedestrians, highway workers, skaters and people using farm equipment or riding horseback.
"These bicyclists and others face disproportionate road dangers. Motorists need to be aware and to share the road," Levine said.
Similar legislative efforts have met with controversy in Sonoma County, as they generally stoke perennial tensions between drivers and cyclists, who tend to blame one another for creating dangerous road conditions.
Cycling has never been more popular in Sonoma County, whether it's people using bikes to go sightseeing, work out, commute or just cruise around town.
That popularity is bolstered by the world-class athletes who train in the area, and by the prestigious cycling events that are staged here, including the Amgen Tour of California and the King Ridge GranFondo.
Cyclists polled Friday generally supported Levine's bill, even though they said it likely would not lead to immediate changes on the road.
"Levine's bill makes it clear that driving a vehicle is a privilege, that cyclists have a right to be on the road and that there are consequences for carelessness," said Shaun Ralston, an avid Santa Rosa cyclist who commutes to work on his bike.
Sebastopol cyclist Gordon Stewart, however, said he doubted that higher fines would have much of an impact because presumably drivers who hit cyclists do so accidentally, "and you don't stop accidents by putting fines on them."
There have, however, been isolated cases of motorists targeting cyclists, including an 82-year-old man who in 2012 rammed a cyclist with his car after chasing him onto an Oakmont golf course.
The number of bicycle collisions on unincorporated Sonoma County roads has held steady in recent years, including 32 in 2013. The crashes resulted in 32 injuries and one fatality, according to CHP data.
In 2012, three people in Sonoma County were killed in bicycle collisions, out of 39 collisions total. The six-year average for crashes in the county is 36.
The CHP has a policy of not commenting on proposed legislation. Officer Jon Sloat said that, in general, increasing penalties for motorists who flout the rules of the road has been shown to have a positive deterrent effect. He said that hinges on motorists becoming aware of what the penalties are.
"If you know how much that's going to cost you, then I think it's effective," he said.
Under current California law, motorists whose bad driving results in injury to another person can be fined up to $95 and lose a point on their license.
Levine's bill would increase these fines to between $145 and $1,000 for crashes resulting in injuries to vulnerable road users, as the lawmaker defines them. He said the legislation is not an attempt to demonize motorists, however.
"I don't think it's demonizing motorists at all," he said. "It's making sure that people understand that if you hit a cyclist, it's just like if you hit a car. There's really no difference."