Sonoma County to weigh proposed law on cyclist harassment

Spend enough time on a bicycle, veteran riders say, and it's bound to happen: Out on the road one day, you'll be the target of a hurled insult or something else thrown by a passing motorist.

Or worse -- you'll be forced off the road or brushed back by an aggressive driver speeding by and laying on the horn.

"It's things that make you realize you are vulnerable," said Sarah Schroer, 41, a Santa Rosa resident and avid cyclist.

Motorists counter with their own stories, recalling bike riders who have dangerously ignored stop signs or pedestrians who have darted in front of traffic outside of crosswalks.

The often heated debate on road rules in Sonoma County has played out in public forums and polarized some camps, with cycling enthusiasts and fed-up drivers squawking about bad behavior by the other side.

The situation has been fueled by the growing number of recreational bike riders on area roads and a series of vehicle crashes in the past two years that have seriously injured or killed cyclists and pedestrians.

The county Board of Supervisors is set to wade back into the debate Tuesday by considering a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for bike riders and pedestrians to sue those who intentionally threaten and harass them.

The proposal has been advanced by bicycling advocates, with support from Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

Sonoma County would become the first county nationwide to enact such a law. Los Angeles, Berkeley, Washington, D.C., and Sunnyvale were the first cities to do so, while Sebastopol became the first local city to pass a so-called "vulnerable user" ordinance in December. The Healdsburg City Council is set to weigh a similar proposal in May.

The county proposal differs from those adopted by cities in one significant way. Where most cities entitle successful plaintiffs to triple monetary penalties -- a provision aimed at enticing attorney interest -- damages and fees under the county ordinance would be left up to the discretion of the court.

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