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Santa Rosa to consider road-threat ordinance

The Santa Rosa City Council is scheduled Tuesday to take up an ordinance that would make it easier for bicyclists and pedestrians to sue people who harass or assault them.

Proposed by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, the “Vulnerable User Protection” ordinance is recommended for approval by the Santa Rosa Police Department. The measure reflects the department's mission statement, officials said, to make the city a safe place “to live, work and play.”

In a study session in April, City Council members indicated their general support for the ordinance, although they had questions about some of the details. In particular they scrutinized a provision allowing cyclists and pedestrians who prevail in court to recover triple damages from violators.

But Mayor Scott Bartley indicated Monday that the ordinance has good prospects for approval.

“I didn't get any strong reaction from anyone on the council at the study session that anyone had profound significant issues” with the ordinance, he said.

The County of Sonoma and Sebastopol both approved similar versions of a Vulnerable User ordinance, although Healdsburg and Windsor rejected it.

The Sebastopol version had the triple damages provision; the county's did not.

Council members in Healdsburg said there have been no reported instances or complaints of cyclists targeted inside their city. And like their counterparts in Windsor, they worried it could lead to frivolous lawsuits.

Critics in those towns said the ordinance goes too far in favor of cyclists and is not needed because there are existing laws to prosecute drivers who turn cars into lethal weapons.

Gary Helfrich, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition, said the law is intended to address as well as deter dangerous behavior.

“It's not someone being rude to someone else, or giving a one-finger salute, or even honking a horn,” he said. “It's where someone is intending to hurt or intimidate another person.”

The Bicycle Coalition recorded more than 160 reports of bicycle rider harassment between 2006 and 2012 and said about half were believed to be actual harassment.

Helfrich said it's important for Santa Rosa, the biggest city in the county, to have an ordinance, because more people bike to work, there's more traffic and potential for tempers to flare.

Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Berkeley, and Sunnyvale have passed similar ordinances, but so far there have been no reported lawsuits against motorists as a result.

Mayor Bartley acknowledged the ordinance may have mostly symbolic value, but it sends a message.

“We want everyone to be polite to each other, basically,” he said.”

The council is set to address the issue after 4 p.m.

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