Healdsburg wants to be seen as a bicycle-friendly community, but not to the extent of approving a law that makes it easier for cyclists to sue motorists who harass or assault them.

The Healdsburg City Council on a 5-0 vote Monday night rejected a so-called "Vulnerable User" ordinance proposed by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, saying it could lead to frivolous lawsuits.

Instead, council members said an education program is needed to reduce friction between drivers, cyclists and even pedestrians.

"No one is against cyclists," said Councilman Gary Plass. "The community had made it clear they don't think this is necessary."

The council action followed testimony from a few bicyclists who talked about scary brushes with motor vehicles, or threats from angry drivers who can turn cars into lethal weapons.

On the other hand, opponents of the proposed ordinance suggested bicyclists provoke a reaction by riding three abreast, making it hard for cars to pass, or they run stop signs and traffic lights.

The Bicycle Coalition proposed the Vulnerable User ordinance to deter cases in which cyclists are physically attacked, forced off the road, had objects thrown at them, or even been groped.

The coalition began promoting the ordinance following a a number of high-profile incidents involving cyclists and pedestrians killed in Sonoma County.

Similar to laws first passed in Los Angeles and a few other metropolitan areas, it stipulates that cyclists and pedestrians can sue motorists who harass or attack them, and can recover triple damages, punitive damages and attorney fees.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a version of the new law, along with the Sebastopol City Council. But the Windsor Town Council rejected it.

Skeptics said it goes too far in favor of cyclists, for whom it is primarily intended.

In particular, they said it would be unduly burdensome for those who are wrongfully accused of harassing cyclists, such as motorists who honk at a cyclist to announce their presence.

Dan Maraviglia, an attorney and chairman of the Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce, said the ordinance could lead to a type of "extortion" in which wronged motorists choose to settle a case and pay a cyclist who brings suit, rather than risk a more costly court fight.

The council was also presented with a petition with more than 100 people opposed to the Vulnerable User ordinance.

While the petition acknowledged the need for everyone to share the streets in Healdsburg, it stated that the ordinance was not needed because existing laws are in place to cover its stated purpose.

Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, argued unsuccessfully that the Healdsburg ordinance could be fine-tuned to accommodate some of the concerns of critics. For example, he said court costs and attorney fees could be awarded to whomever prevails in the lawsuit, not just to the cyclist.

He said if the ordinance saved one life it would be worth it.

But Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke said his department has not identified any incidents in the city of cyclists being targeted, or had one complaint.

Councilman Shaun McCaffery noted that Healdsburg has been singled out as one of the top cycling destinations in the country.

But he said there's not a need for the ordinance inside city limits.

"We don't really have these incidents," he said of confrontations between cyclists and motorists. "Most happen way out it in the boonies."

Some cyclists warned the council that rejecting the ordinance would be bad public relations, because it would send a message that Healdsburg is not bicycle friendly.

"I was elected to represent citizens, not bicyclists on vacation," McCaffery responded.

In the end, the council referred the matter to the city's Transportation Advisory Committee to come up with recommendations for an education program.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.