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Leader of Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition seeks peace and safety on two wheels

  • Gary Helfrich rounds the corner of Steele Lane and Mendocino Avenue as he commutes on his bicycle to work at the Santa Rosa Bike Coalition on Thursday, August 15, 2013. Helfrich works as the executive director of the coalition as he helps leads efforts to help make Sonoma County more bicycle friendly. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

Gary Helfrich makes a point of listening to the complaints and the rants, the calls and emails of people upset by cyclists who don't follow traffic laws or who clog narrow roads.

Helfrich, the head of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, knows that bicyclists can do better at following traffic rules, but said that doesn't give a motorist the right to drive dangerously, or assault a cyclist.

"It's amazing how this disconnect happens. Suddenly it's OK to be a vigilante," he said. "Suddenly it's OK to kill someone with your car."

Gary Helfrich, Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition

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Road-rage incidents such as the one last year when an 82-year-old man rammed a cyclist with his car after chasing him onto the Oakmont golf course are the extreme. But that incident, along with a series of fatal bicycle accidents in Sonoma County and ongoing reports of cyclists being harassed, helped Helfrich build a campaign that has gotten Sonoma County, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol to pass "vulnerable user" ordinances to better protect cyclists and pedestrians.

The ordinance makes it easier for cyclists and pedestrians to sue people who harass or assault them. Critics, who fear that will lead to frivolous lawsuits, helped shoot down the proposal in Windsor and Healdsburg.

If nothing else, the vulnerable-user ordinance is intended to deter harassment and make the roads safer.

"I think there's a message there: educating people. You have to share the road with bicyclists. We all need to be more patient," said Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who worked with Helfrich to bring the ordinance to the Board of Supervisors and get it passed.

"Cyclists aren't perfect at following the rules of the road," she said, but if they get into altercations with motorists "bicyclists will always lose."

"I'm waiting for the day when someone riding a car is killed by someone riding a bicycle," Helfrich said of the uneven match between a two-ton vehicle and someone on a bicycle.

Helfrich, 59, head of the bicycle coalition for the past two years, is on a mission to shift the culture and attitude toward cyclists.


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