Ordinance to limit bicycle harrassment takes effect

Berkeley bicyclists now have the right to bring civil suits against drivers who they believe harassed them on the road, thanks to a city ordinance that went into effect Thursday.

The ordinance protects bicyclists from threats of assault or injury and prohibits drivers from inflicting them with intentional injury, intentionally distracting them and forcing them off the road “for a purpose unrelated to public safety.”

Under the ordinance, violators may now be liable for three times the amount of damages incurred against the cyclist or $1,000, whichever is greater. Drivers could also be liable for attorney’s fees and any costs incurred from filing the suit.

In addition to damages, bicyclists can also pursue criminal charges as well as “any other remedy at law,” according to the ordinance.

Berkeley City Councilmember Kriss Worthington said he was approached almost two years ago by a frustrated Berkeley bicyclist who claimed he was repeatedly harassed by drivers. After hearing about a Los Angeles ordinance protecting bicyclists from harassment, Worthington said he thought Berkeley should follow suit.

The ordinance was officially approved by Berkeley City Council in January of this year.

Because civil lawsuits do not require criminal charges to be brought, under the ordinance, bicyclists can take drivers to court without having to involve the police.

“The police have a lot of violent crimes and other important issues to deal with,” Worthington said. “We don’t want to divert the police from (them).”

However, Worthington said the purpose of the ordinance is less to facilitate lawsuits and more to get people to stop and think before they act negatively toward bicyclists.

“I think it will get used pretty infrequently,” he said. “Most of the benefit is from education.”

Gabriel Fernandez, a mechanic for the campus bicycle cooperative BicyCAL, said a better solution than the ordinance would have been more bicycle lanes and greater enforcement of the state’s cellphone law, which Fernandez said he thinks contributes to drivers cutting cyclists off. Still, Fernandez said he supports the ordinance. “As long as people are aware that there will be repercussions, it’s definitely a step in the right direction,” he said.

The city’s ordinance is almost identical to the one passed in Los Angeles almost a year ago, making Berkeley the second city in the country to implement a bicyclist harassment law.