Sonoma County set to study making it easier for bicyclists to sue hostile drivers

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors today is expected to endorse studying a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue drivers who intentionally threaten and harass them.

The proposal being pushed by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition would define various forms of harassment against "vulnerable users" and would triple monetary penalties, making such cases more attractive to attorneys.

Supporters hope the ordinance would rein in hostility toward cyclists and pedestrians and would reduce the number of injuries and incidents.

"This is about sending a message that we take care of our bicyclists and pedestrians and protect them," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a cyclist who supports the idea of a safety ordinance and brought the matter before the board.

Supervisors today are only set to decide whether the concept merits further study and any discussion probably will be limited. A vote on an ordinance would come later, possibly within 60 days.

Critics have said a new county law is unnecessary and duplicative. They say laws already are in place to punish those convicted of serious car-vs.-bike crimes and any ordinance targeting minor incidents risks meddling in a murky area of law.

But bicycle advocates say harassment and intimidation can lead to harm, including crashes for cyclists and medical bills -- expenses they say are difficult to recoup under the current civil code.

"Let's say somebody does something -- runs you off the road. Your bicycle is badly damaged," said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, an advocacy group.

If the motorist makes no contact with the rider and drives on, the incident is unlikely to be looked at by police as a hit and run, Helfrich said.

"Right now, that is a problem," he said. "This (ordinance) would let you recover your loss and get triple damages."

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