Cyclists in Los Angeles who believe they’ve been harassed by a passing motorist have now been given another way to fight back – through the court.
The Los Angeles City Council voted July 20 to approve a new ordinance prohibiting the harassment of bicyclists, either physical or verbal, due to their status as cyclists. The anti-harassment ordinance, which supporters believe is one of the most stringent in the country, makes it unlawful for motorists in the city to intentionally force or attempt to force a person on a bicycle off the road.
Under the new law, a potential victim of harassment against cyclists can take their case directly to civil court to sue the accused motorist. Violators will be subject to paying triple the damages for each violation, or $1,000, whichever is greater, as well as attorney fees and court costs.
City attorneys noted that previously, the city’s ability to create laws regulating the interaction of motorists and cyclists on the road has been limited and it was difficult to enforce the existing laws. The new ordinance will enable bicyclists to seek possible redress for harassment in incidents where police were not present or there was insufficient evidence to file charges, city attorneys said.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who spearheaded the motion to protect bicycle riders from harassment, called the ordinance a “no-brainer” and hopes it can have a ripple effect throughout the region and the country.
“It’s a historic step for the city and I’m very proud of the support of my council colleagues,” Rosendahl said. “This will be something that we will be able to share with cities across the country with the hope that everyone can feel comfortable getting on a bike and have the rights and protections that they didn’t have before.”
The chair of the council’s Transportation Committee, Rosendahl said he had heard many stories of cyclists being abused or harassed while riding their bikes. One dramatic incident that occurred in Rosendahl’s district and influenced him to push for the ordinance was when two cyclists were seriously injured after a driver slammed on his brakes in front of them on Mandeville Canyon. The driver, a physician, was convicted of assault and other charges in the case.
The councilman believes the anti-harassment law “puts teeth” in the opportunity for cyclists to be protected on the streets.
“It’s all about safety as far as I’m concerned,” he said.
Some local avid cyclists, who say they’ve faced their share of harassment over the years, praised Rosendahl for leading the charge with the new law.
“I want to commend (Councilman) Rosendahl on his commitment to cycling by championing this ordinance,” said Westchester resident Kent Strumpell, a member of the city Bicycle Advisory Committee.
Strumpell, who typically rides his bike for eight to 10 miles, remembered incidents where he was shot at with a paint ball gun, cars “buzzed” dangerously close by and drinks were thrown at him. He notes that shouting by drivers is a common occurrence, and feels much of the behavior is due to impatience and unwillingness to accept the cyclist as a legitimate road user.
“Cyclists have enough to worry about without having the added danger of harassment, which is really a form of intentional violence,” Strumpell said.
He said many European countries have liability laws that assume the fault of motorists in collisions with cyclists, and motorists there seem to treat bike riders with more respect.
Del Rey resident Howard Hackett, another regular cyclist, recalled a recent incident where the driver honked the horn loudly and drove close by, causing Hackett to move in the way of parked cars. While Hackett says victims may have a tough time proving they were harassed, he believes the law can help improve interactions between riders and drivers on the roads.
“I think it’s going to make more of us aware, both motorists and cyclists, that we need to be careful with what we do to each other and try not to harass each other,” he said.
As a rider who usually covers over 100 miles a week, Jay Slater says the most common forms of driver intimidation he sees are people pressing loudly on the horn or pulling up to bikers, telling them to get to the side or on the sidewalk. Some motorists in Los Angeles have a sense of entitlement to using the roads, he said, and are not familiar with the laws related to bicycling.
“It gives us just another step in the process of educating drivers about cycling and what cycling is all about,” Slater, the chair of the city Bicycle Advisory Committee, said of the new law.
Venice resident Joseph Shields says he rides his bike around the neighborhood and has seen some actions by other riders that he feels abuse the rules of the road. In a letter to Rosendahl, Shields took issue with the provision against verbal harassment, saying it could be misused from its original intent and should be reconsidered.
“I very much think that more thought needs to be put in place to modify the verbal harassment portion of the ordinance – especially the payment of legal fees for only one party,” Shields wrote. “Make it balanced so that baseless claims/claims without merit and their claimants are penalized accordingly with payment for court costs to the defendant if they lose.”
Slater acknowledged that the harassment victim will have a fairly substantial burden of proof, particularly if the person is riding alone. But with the new regulations in combination with a police report and other information, victims can have a strong case, and the higher payout will encourage attorneys to take on such cases, Slater said.
Strumpell added that the new regulations can help cyclists identify certain motorists who have shown a pattern of misbehavior toward bike riders and will help deter drivers from taking certain actions due to the repercussions.
“This ordinance is an important step to instill more fear in motorists that they cannot get away with intimidating cyclists,” he said.
Rosendahl noted that he was a strong proponent for the city’s update of the Bicycle Master Plan, which was approved last year, and his vision was to have the anti-harassment law complement the plan. Slater commended Rosendahl and his council colleagues for allowing the new ordinance to complement the master plan, and added that Rosendahl has also been a supporter of a proposed state law requiring a minimum 3-foot distance between cars and cyclists.