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Healdsburg City Council rejects cyclist protection law

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.

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