What if you were out for your morning walk on one of Sonoma County's beautiful rural roads and a car suddenly swerved toward you, forcing you off the road and into the ditch?
How about if you were enjoying a brisk run in your subdivision and someone sped by, threatened you verbally and threw a full soda can, hitting you in the leg and knocking you down?
What if you were riding your bicycle over the crest of a hill in Sonoma Wine Country and someone suddenly shot at you as you passed by their property?
It happens — more than any of us would care to think.
Since 2006, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition has become aware of too many stories like these though our harassment reporting system. Our staff and board frequently hear such terrifying tales. We are shocked and dismayed that people in friendly, small-town-seeming Sonoma County would behave aggressively toward one another.
Most of us agree that no one is entitled to threaten and harass their fellow citizens when they're out using public roadways for transportation and recreation. Unfortunately, a small but dangerous number of people seem to believe that people walking or riding bikes on public roads are moving targets for their aggression. These people exhibit entitlement to verbally or physically threaten road users who are not encased in two tons of steel.
On Friday, the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition introduced the Protect as all campaign, designed to raise awareness about harassment of people walking and riding bikes in our community. In addition to bringing this pressing issue into the light, we also proposed the Vulnerable Road User Protection Ordinance, legislation that, if passed by the county and each of its nine cities, will send a strong message: Using bicycle riders and pedestrians as an outlet for your anger is not tolerated.
The Vulnerable Road User Protection Ordinance is more than symbolic. Based on a law passed in Los Angeles a year ago (Washington, D.C., Sunnyvale and Berkeley have since followed suit), the proposed ordinance defines harassment strictly and provides for civil remedies when a complaint meets that legal definition.
The Vulnerable Road User Protection Ordinance would increase your access to justice if you are harassed while riding your bike or walking. It would allow you to hire a lawyer on contingency, meaning you would not be responsible for legal fees up front. The remedies would allow you to recover damages, attorneys' fees and punitive damages. The person who harassed you would be liable for triple the actual damages with regard to each and every violation, or $1,000, whichever is greater, and will be liable for reasonable attorneys' fees and costs of litigation. In addition, a jury or court could award you punitive damages.
When Toraj Soltani, while riding his bicycle, became the victim of his assailant's unfathomable rage, it became stunningly clear that it's high time for our community to join together to protect people on our roads.
The alleged actions of 81-year-old Harry Smith were clearly criminal. He is being prosecuted in criminal court and charged with attempted murder. Smith reportedly had a record of prior incidents of harassing people riding bicycles. The Vulnerable Road User Protection Ordinance would help identify people who harass and threaten bicycle riders and pedestrians and demonstrate that harassers are accountable for their behavior. The law would help discourage harassment and help catch harassers before they become assailants.