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The Los Angeles City Council has passed a motion designed to give bicyclists more recourse when they are harassed by motorists. The motion, which was authored by Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, 11th District, allows cyclists to file a civil lawsuit against a motorist if they allege a driver has harassed or threatened their safety. They are not required to contact the police.
Previously, cyclists would have to make a citizens arrest and report the incident to the police department, which would determine whether a crime was committed. If no crime occurred, the cyclist would have to retain an attorney to file a civil lawsuit against a motorist.
According to Rosendahl, few attorneys agree to take such cases because civil law does not allow for attorney’s fees to be recouped. Under the new ordinance, cyclists could move forward with filing a civil lawsuit with or without retaining an attorney, and with or without a criminal case being filed.
“This is a significant step forward in ensuring that the rights of cyclists to use our roadways are protected,” Rosendahl said. “With more and more competition than ever out there for use of the roadways, tempers can flare. And in the conflict of bike versus vehicle, I don’t have to tell you who is going to win. Cyclists are the most vulnerable users on our roads, so we need to do everything we can to protect them.”
The motion follows a highly-publicized incident where physician Christopher Thompson was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison last January after intentionally causing a collision with a cyclist in Brentwood in 2008. Thompson reportedly passed dangerously close to a group of cyclists and then pulled in front of them and slammed on the brakes, causing one rider to hit the back of his car and strike the rear window, and another to fall to the pavement. Because of the injuries, the incident resulted in felony charges, and Thompson was later convicted of assault with a deadly weapon, mayhem, battery with serious injury, and reckless driving causing injury.
Rosendahl said the incident was an extreme example of road rage that occurs against cyclists, but added that it is very common for motorists to drive intentionally close to riders or harass them.
Rosendahl added that he hopes cyclists will use the ordinance as a tool to protect themselves, and also hopes that motorists will use more caution around cyclists because they know that they could be held civilly liable if they harass a rider. It will be up to the courts to determine whether the harassment actually occurred, and whether the motorist was at fault.
“If it’s a burden on the legal system, then it’s a burden on the legal system,” Rosendahl said. “If a person gets harassed on a bicycle, then they need to be able to do something about it, and if it means pressure on the legal system, fine.”
Lt. Robert Binder, of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood Division, said the new ordinance, from a law enforcement standpoint, will clarify what can happen when incidents occur between bicyclists and motorists, whether they are determined to be criminal or civil matters. When a felony has occurred, the police must investigate and charges can be filed against a motorist. Binder added that most cases of harassment are misdemeanors, because no violence has occurred. Unless they happen in the presence of a police officer, the cyclist has to make a citizens arrest and report it to the police department for criminal proceedings to move forward. Authorities would then file a case with the district attorney’s office. He said the same situation applies in reverse when a cyclist harasses a motorist.
Binder added that incidents between motorists and bicyclists probably occur on a daily basis, but “hardly any” cases are reported to the police.
“There have been a couple really publicized ones, but as far as assaults with a deadly weapon with a vehicle versus bicycle, we probably get a couple a month,” Binder said. “It is basically a road rage situation, whether it’s vehicle versus bike, vehicle versus motorcycle or vice versa. When there is criminal intent, it can be very serious, but the difficulty is proving intent. Each case is unique, so this may allow cyclists to take a different approach when situations occur that are not a felony crime.”
Jeff Jacobberger, the chair of the Mid City West Community Council and an avid cycling enthusiast, said he believes the new ordinance is necessary to give cyclists more protection. Jacobberger added that he has been harassed many times while riding in the local area.
“There have been times when I am riding down San Vicente at ten in the morning on a Sunday when there is no traffic, and there will be someone driving right behind me riding their horn,” Jacobberger said. “That person was doing nothing but trying to harass me, and if you go to the LAPD, it’s a ‘he said, she said’ situation. There really is no way to enforce these things when these things occur, and it is a necessary tool. There really are some drivers who try to use the fact that they are in a big car to harass cyclists.”
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