Raising the bar in bike-friendly Berkeley

Berkeley’s Bicyclist Anti-Harassment Ordinance is in force

On January 17th, the Berkeley City Council approved a Bicyclist Anti-Harassment Ordinance, joining the City of Los Angeles as the second city in the nation to provide specific civil recourse for harassed and assaulted bicyclists. This new ordinance becomes law on February 16, 2012.
Read StreetsblogSF’s article on Berkeley’s new ordinance
Read the Berkeleyside/SFGate.com Story about Berkeley’s new ordinance
Read the bikeRadar.com Story about the new ordinance
Read the Planetizen Story about the new ordinance

Why is this ordinance needed?
It may be hard to fathom for those who rarely ride a bicycle, but there are drivers out there who will assault or harass bicyclists simply because they are using the road. That’s what happened in Mandeville Canyon in 2008 when Dr. Christopher Thompson slammed on his brakes in front of two bicyclists, sending them through his rear windshield and to the hospital because they needed to be “taught a lesson”. That’s what happened to me in 2010 when I was forced into a row of parked cars by a woman in an SUV screaming that I needed to “get on the sidewalk”. That’s what happens to countless bicyclists every day when someone tries to intentionally startle them from behind with a horn blare, when someone threateningly revs their engine, or when someone throws an object out of a moving vehicle window at them.

It’s real. It happens. And for the vast majority of these assaults, the offender faces no consequences. Equally frustrating, many drivers are unaware that their behavior is wrong. This new ordinance is about education as much as it is about the law.

What does this new ordinance do?
This new ordinance in Berkeley allows bicyclists who are harassed or assaulted to take a driver to civil court. A bicyclist may bring suit against a driver who:

1. Assaults, or attempts to assault, a bicyclist;
2. Threatens to physically injure a bicyclist;
3. Injures, or attempts to injure, a bicyclist;
4. Intentionally distracts a bicyclist with the intent to cause injury; or,
5. Intentionally forces a bicyclist off the roadway.

Everything listed above is already illegal. This ordinance doesn’t create new crimes, but rather addresses the difficulty of seeking recourse. The burden of proof for criminal cases is high. Police officers and public prosecutors have been extremely reluctant to bring charges for what they sometimes consider to be “minor offenses”. Unless a police officer is on-hand to witness the incident, charges are almost never filed.

The ordinance adopted by Berkeley and Los Angeles is groundbreaking because it makes harassment and assault of a bicyclist a civil offense as well as a criminal offence. There is a lower burden of proof for civil cases as the penalties are financial and remedial. Making this harassment a civil offense also puts legal tools directly in the hands of bicyclists, letting them bring suit rather than having to go through the City Attorney’s office in a criminal case.

In the case of a successful civil suit for harassment of a cyclist, a driver will be required to pay:

1. Three times the damages incurred from the offending incident or $1,000, whichever is larger;
2. The attorney’s fees of the plaintiff; and,
3. Any other damages awarded by a civil judge or jury

These awards are essential in making civil suits viable, because they increase the likelihood an attorney will take the case. The awards also ask as a strong deterent to wrong behavior on the roadway. Frivolous lawsuits are unlikely, as a harassed or assaulted bicyclist must not only have enough evidence to convince a lawyer to take a case, but also enough evidence to convince a judge or jury. In the six months since the ordinance was enacted in Los Angeles not one case has yet been brought to court.

As cities invest in better bikeways they also need to foster an environment where people will feel safe riding. An “interested, but concerned” rider out for the first time who is harassed simply because they are using the roadway is tempted to give up and not try again. That’s one more car trip that could have been replaced by bicycle, that’s one more car on the morning commute, and that’s one more parking space that is no longer available to others.

Berkeley has taken another step towards securing bicyclists’ rightful place on our streets, creating a bicycling environment that is encouraging to all, and providing bicyclists with a real tool to discourage the harassment and assault that happens far too regularly today. We hope that Berkeley’s recent adoption of a Bicyclist Anti-Harassment Ordinance will inspire other cities to follow suit.

Christopher Kidd was the creator and author of the LADOT Bike Blog, and ran the media campaign for the Los Angeles Bicyclist Anti-Harassment Ordinance along with Tony Arranaga from Councilmember Bill Rosendahl’s office. You can read more about the LA ordinance here: http://tiny.cc/lalaw. Christopher is currently employed as a Planner at Alta Planning + Design in Berkeley, California.

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