By Stuart Soffer
On the Nascent Bicyclist Harassment OrdinanceUploaded: Oct 20, 2013
I was reminiscing about Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks when I encountered the Almanac story and responses regarding the possibility of formulating a Bicyclist Harassment Ordinance.
Biking recreationally to downtown Palo Alto I see the challenges bicyclists face. Biking is risky due to behaviors of drivers and cyclists and geometry of the roads. I suspect that at some level there are legitimate issues for which proponents want such an ordinance.
'Harassment' is commonly defined as a repeated undesired behavior. However in these ordinances only a low threshold of single instance of a purported 'event' triggers a violation. The ordinances presume guilt, and adjudication is not necessarily easy. The facts can be murky, the required 'intent' is difficult to identify and prove. And there's no mechanism to compensate the legal expenses of defending improper allegations.
I reviewed the Bicycle Commission agenda including the representative ordinances from other cities. I'll note that Los Angeles' ordinance was signed by Kent Steffens, our former Assistant City Manager and Acting City Manager. Kent had the good sense to recommend to the Los Angeles council that the ordinance should not be adopted. (The Almanac could follow-up with him.)
Consider the following scenario. A driver yells at a bicyclist to wear a helmet. The Bicyclist turns to the driver, trips on a pothole, rolls, hitting his/her unprotected head on the sidewalk. Awful. Is the driver wrong for yelling, or, what responsibility does the cyclist bear for not wearing a helmet in the first place?
What happens when one or more parties, or both, are outside of Menlo Park or San Mateo County? What happens if only part of a sequence if steps occur in Menlo Park?
The financial risks are not analyzed. What is the effect cost on homeowners or car insurance to provide for harassment coverage? Why isn't there a cap on liability?
Harassment ordinances should originate at a higher jurisdiction at county or state level. Limited acceptance of similar ordinances outside of Menlo Park diminishes its authority here. Frankly, the proposals (such as treble damages) described in the bicycle commission packet have an air of revenge. Does the council want to be the enabler of that?