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Sebastopol adopts law to help bicyclists, pedestrians


Sebastopol became the first city in Sonoma County and one of few in the nation to pass an ordinance that makes it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue drivers who threaten or harass them.

"It's a way to send a message that people who are not in cars have rights too," said Councilman Patrick Slayter. "Just because you are driving a 5,000-pound weapon doesn't mean might makes right."

The "vulnerable road users" ordinance was passed on a unanimous vote, paving the way for it to become law when it comes back for a second reading at a future meeting.

"Hate is hate, it doesn't matter what it's for, anything we can do to stop bullying," said Vice Mayor Robert Jacob.

The ordinance is being promoted countywide by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, which says it will stem the number of incidents just by being on the books.

"The best laws we have are the ones that act as deterrents," said Gary Helfrich, executive director of the bike coalition. "That has been the experience in Los Angeles. There have not been any suits filed and there has been a decline in reported incidents."

The Sebastopol proposal is meant to provide a legal recourse by giving the ability to file a civil suit to pedestrians, cyclists, roller skaters, skateboarders and the impaired.

It is patterned after similar ordinances that have been adopted in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Sunnyvale and Washington, D.C.

The coalition and other local bicycle advocates began promoting the ordinance this summer after a series of fatal or serious-injury incidents involving vehicles and bicycles or pedestrians.

There are frequent reports that cyclists have been yelled at, slapped, had things thrown at them or dumped on them and been shot at, said Sandra Lupien, coalition director of outreach.

Bill Oetinger of Sebastopol, ride director for the Santa Rosa Cycling Club, called the harassment of cyclists "hate crimes" that leave riders shaken and sometimes hurt.

"No one should have to put up with it," Oetinger said. "I don't think the noncycling public is aware how much of it goes on."

Jerry Meshulam of Sebastopol said that he has had people in pickups dump cups of soda on his head and throw cups at him.

"Is this ordinance going to stop that? Maybe not. The point is it gets the word out," Meshulam said.

Linda Berg of Sebastopol, however, said she knows of cases where someone in a stopped car was run into by a skateboard rider and by a cyclist, neither of whom stopped.

"Some of the bicyclists and pedestrians are guilty of not using good sense," Berg said. "I'm not sure putting the burden on the motorist is a good idea."

Supporters say the proposed ordinance is intended to fill perceived gaps in criminal prosecution, which has a higher standard of proof and requires such things as positive identification of the driver.

The proposed ordinance defines what harassment is and sets up a procedure for an injured party, whether it is a cyclist, pedestrian, jogger or skateboard rider, to bring a lawsuit against an aggressor, which could be a motorist or even a cyclist.

Harassment is defined as attempted physical assault or physical assault; verbal threats of assault; intentional injury or attempts to injure; distracting or attempting to distract a bicyclist, pedestrian or others; forcing someone off the street; passing at an unsafe distance of less than 3 feet; and failing to yield to a pedestrian walking or running along a road.