New law seeks to curb biker versus car road rage

A bicyclist braving traffic.
A bicyclist braving traffic. Ed Yourdon via Creative Commons

A new ordinance heading for a vote soon by the Los Angeles City Council would make it easier for bikers to sue aggressive drivers. Bike advocates are calling it a landmark law, but some drivers are wary.

Cyclist Jonathan Green says harassment is a fact of life for bikers.

"If you are out on your bike on a daily basis, it happens frequently," Green explains.

Green works for a project that recovers abandoned bikes around L.A. He says when a driver endangers him he takes matters into his own hands.

"I'll carry my camera with me," he says. "And if someone harasses me, and I catch them at a stoplight, I'll just take a picture of them. And get their car and license plate. And it changes people's behavior because it makes them feel there is a certain kind of responsibility. You are no longer anonymous, you are responsible for your behavior."

Jonathan Green could soon do a lot more than just snap a picture. Within a few weeks, the L.A. City Council could approve the Bicyclists' Anti-Harassment Ordinance.

The new law would make it easier for bikers like Green to sue when drivers harass, threaten, assault or intentionally distract them. It's the first law of its kind in the country.

"What it really is is cyclists' civil rights," says attorney Ross Hirsch. He's represented bike riders in the past.

Hirsch points out there are laws to prevent harassment on roadways, but he says a lot of lawyers turn down these cases. The damages tend to be small, so a lawyer's cut might not be worth it. But under the new ordinance, a driver found guilty would have to pay the lawyers fees on top of any damages awarded by the court.

"It makes it a little more lucrative for an attorney to take the case because that attorney will be getting attorney's fees as damages," says Hirsch. He also notes the law would force a guilty driver to pay a cyclist three times the cost of damaged property or hospital bills.

Filling up his car at a gas station in Los Feliz, David Abrams doesn't like the sound of that.

"Wouldn't they be more inclined to fake stuff?" Abrams asks. "And you know, get in their path? Because lawyers get a lot of money from them."

"I think it's too much power for them," says Nick Petro. Petro think when tempers rise both parties are to blame, no matter how many wheels they have.

"I don't think they should be able to just sue at random. Because they are just as much responsible for being on the road as a person driving a car too."

But lawyer Daniel Jimenez says don't expect the new ordinance to send a pack of lawsuits rolling through the courts.

"No, it's not going to be that simple," says Jimenez, who also rides a bike regularly. "In those situations no one is going to be able to get all the evidence you really need. Because you are too busy riding a bike and too busy dealing with someone who is trying to harass you."

He says in the end, you still need witnesses, still need information on the car and driver – you still need a solid, compelling case to get to court. Most cyclist versus driver incidents won't make it.

Still, the road wars in Los Angeles can get intense. Three years ago an incident between a driver and a pair of bikers in Mandeville Canyon turned bloody.

The driver, an emergency room physician, was convicted of assault and sentenced to five years in prison. He slammed on his brakes after pulling in front of two cyclists. One required 90 stitches after his head went through the car's rear windshield.

Cyclist Jonathan Green hopes this new law will help cut down on rage like that.

"I mean I love biking, it's a lot of fun, I can't recommend it enough," says Green. "So, if these laws might make a change... I don't know. You have to wait and see what happens."

For now, Green will keep hitting the streets on two wheels, camera in hand, ready to turn a confrontation into a photo opportunity.

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