New Council Motion Could Increase Cyclists Rights in Crashes (Updated, 1:04 P.M.)

Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/76003564@N00/2910204291/##Devildoc18/flickr##
Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/76003564@N00/2910204291/##Devildoc18/flickr##

Earlier this year, the City Council ordered city staff to create a list of changes to city and state laws that could help cyclists see justice after crashes.  At the time, City Council Transportation Committee Chair Bill Rosendahl referred to the motion as an anti-harassment ordinance, and hopes ran high that the city could create a three foot passing law, or could somehow further criminalize unsafe and aggressive behavior by drivers.

After the Chief Legislative Analysts office spent six months looking at different routes the city could take, their proposal is to draft legislation that will increase cyclists legal rights after a crash by making it a civil violation of the municipal code to discriminate against a bicyclist by unlawfully assaulting, threatening, or harassing a bicyclist, and create a private cause of action with attorneys’ fees for a violation.

Rosendahl explains the motion:

Cyclists are the most vulnerable users on our roads so we need to do everything we can to protect them. When a motorist feels aggrieved and engages in some type of senseless tit for tat behavior with another motorist it’s never appropriate or safe. But when that same motorist is engaging in that behavior with a cyclist it’s deadly. This proposal is designed to address that. It creates a private cause of action that allows cyclists who are victims of discrimination on the roadway to pursue the matter civilly rather than wait for law enforcement to act.

In plain English, this proposed legislation would give cyclists another legal leg to stand on and help them get legal counsel for civil suits.  Generally, people who sue for a tort in civil court cannot recover attorneys fees, and so unless there are very serious injuries or unless the person suing is wealthy, it is almost impossible to get an attorney to represent you.  By allowing for a recovery of attorneys fees, people might be able to get a lawyer to represent them even if they were only slightly injured, or  did not suffer physical injuries.

Update: Ted Rogers adds that the ordinance would allow cyclists to pursue civil actions against drivers without a police report.  I.E. that witness statements and other evidence would allow them to seek compensation.

Granted, this isn’t the kind of change that’s going to make streets safer for cyclists overnight, instead its aim is to help cyclists recoup some of their losses after the crash.  While this may increase the number of crash cases that go to civil court, and the size of judgments against unsafe drivers, the cases are still going to rest on properly written police reports.  And what about just trying to make streets safer for cyclists?  Wasn’t that the original point of pushing an “anti-harassment ordinance?”

Rosendahl’s office hasn’t given up on the idea of pushing for a change in state law that would mandate a “three feet passing law.”  Mayor Villaraigosa is on board with the idea as well, and cyclists around the city have seen the posters that beg drivers to “give me 3.”  Rosendahl himself mentions that there’s still a lot of work to do to make streets safe for cyclists, “It’s not a cure all but it’s one more step towards recognizing that our public streets are for all users not just the automobile.”

The report from the CLA will be heard by both the City Council Transportation Committee at next Wednesday’s meeting (October 27) and the following meeting of the Public Safety Committee (Monday, November 1) before heading to the full Council.  If the Council approves the report, the CLA could draft a formal motion that would make the law changes outlined above.

Back in January, the Public Safety Committee threw cold water on Rosendahl’s efforts to push for an anti-harassment ordinance.  In particular, Councilman Greig Smith and Councilman Dennis Zine seemed to believe that the effort was a waste of time because assaulting anyone is already against the law and sent a different recommendation to the City Council than the one of the Transportation Committee.

If that were to happen again, the Council would receive the reports and any accompanying motions from both committees and then can choose to accept the recommendation of either committee or forge a third path.  In January the two committee chairs, Smith for Public Safety and Rosendahl for Transportation, reached a compromise before the full Council heard the reports and different committee recommendations.

(Tip of the helmet to everyone’s favorite Dude on a Bike, Ross Hirsch, for helping explain the impacts of this proposed legislation to me.)

  • Glad to help.

    I, like many other cyclists, are looking forward to more information from the City Attorney on their proposal here. The only information released thus far is that contained in the July 8, 2010 report, which really only contained one small paragraph outlining their proposal.

    -I’d like to see the new legislation written to include a civil penalty payable to the injured cyclist.

    -I’d also like to see it written in such a way to be able to trigger the driver’s insurance.

    . . . of course, that would be in addition to the provision providing for the recovery of attorneys fees.

    Without the the proper incentives to adequately ensure that these cases get prosecuted, cyclists will continue to be left unprotected and uncompensated–meanwhile drivers will be let off the hook for personal injury and property damages they cause to our more vulnerable road users.

  • As it has been explained to me, one of the primary benefits of this ordinance is that it would allow cyclists to pursue action without a police report. As it stands now, the police can’t take action in most cases unless they actually witness the violation.

    This ordinance would allow cyclists to pursue a on their own, whether or not the police were involved, based on witness statements or other evidence. And it would be tried in civil court, which requires a lower burden of proof than criminal cases.

  • Alek F

    I’m not 100% sure it would be a truly effective method.
    Because most cyclists – to be honest – are the ones violating traffic laws! They ride on sidewalks like maniacs, causing danger to themselves and others, and they ride on the roads without stopping at stop-signs or at red lights. I think – if anything – there should be tougher enforcements of bicycle laws. Let’s try not to always take the side of a bicyclists (just because we are a bicycle community) but let’s judge objectively. The person who breaks the laws is at fault, and that includes cyclists.

  • @Alek F

    ?? Your first sentence is a perfectly valid opinion–to which I was looking forward to reading the argument you offer in support thereof, which I assumed would follow in the latter portion of your comment. But your argument that “cyclists break laws, too” followed by your call for objectivity is not relevant and non sequitur. That’s too bad.

    I’m not sure I’ve seen a call proposing to offer support for cyclists that break the laws? I haven’t seen any such suggestion or desire–and I don’t that intention into the City Attorney’s proposal. And I would agree with the proposition that cyclists that violate laws drastically reduce the chances of enforcement and/or compensation, perhaps to 0, but the same would be the case for any road user.

    The issue is that cyclists rights and cyclist safety issues are inadequately being addressed and enforced both by the current criminal enforcement mechanisms and via the avenues for civil redress. The City Attorney’s proposal just might help things. It really shouldn’t take a catastrophic incident with severe and/or life threatening injuries to get a case prosecuted to either (1) properly punish the driver such that it acts as a societal deterrent, and/or (2) get the injured cyclist proper compensation for legitimate damages.

  • It seems like we’ve operated for too long under an unwieldy and unstable informal arrangement where danger is disproportionately accorded to cyclists (unprotected as we are) and liability is shouldered primarily by motorists (they have the insurance).
    As pointed out, it’s not operated well so far. Damages or settlements compensate only in a few egregious cases, letting most motorists off the hook. And most cyclists nurse wounds uncompensated by the insurers. Besides, physical injury and insurance costs are not equivalent or comparable.
    Assigning blame in these collisions is difficult. To Alek’s point, cyclists don’t always ride within the law, and they can be at fault in collisions (whole or in part). Nobody knows how often, but we can’t pretend that it’s not so. There are also practical challenges, as sometimes it’s difficult to secure a police report (they seem reluctant to file them, and as a matter of policy don’t respond to property damage collisions). And we know that motorists do hit then run.
    Sorting out responsibility for the dysfunction on our streets is also problematic because the specter of actual injury tends to overshadow the particulars. From my perspective as a cyclists, I’m much more concerned about motorist carelessness than my own possible contribution to a collision. Because the damage is so disproportionate, I tend to heap responsibility on the motorist.
    As we know, torts and damages are not a very efficient way of sorting out responsibility either. But suits do help to shift policy, and new policies such as proposed may help clarify the responsibility. I’d like to think that under a more functional system, we can be more clear-eyed about assigning responsibility, rather than cyclists pointing at dumb-headed motorists (as I do myself) and motorists calling cyclists proto-anarchists.

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