Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Washington Area Bicyclist Association: Share the road ... or else

July 11, 2011 - 03:28 PM
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Sharing isn't always easy. (Photo: flickr/orcmid)

D.C. bicyclists may have finally had enough of driver aggression. Earlier today, Shane Farthing, head of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, drafted a blog post on WABA's site in which he suggested a draft for new legislation with the goal of protecting bicyclists against drivers who threaten or intentionally harm cyclists as the two types of commuters struggle to share the same roads.

The question of driver aggression is "a long-term conversation that's out there," Farthing told me this afternoon. "[Such driver behavior] certainly isn't the norm but it does happen frequently enough."

Consequently, Farthing said, there is a need to "empower" bicyclists to allow them to fight back in such situations, which he said were borne out of a disparity of power on the road and resulting "relative vulnerabilities" on the part of cyclists compared to automobile drivers.

What inspired Farthing's post and suggested bill was a series of incidents, including what he calls an "anti-cyclist rant" featured on the Ballston Patch news site. The author of the Patch editorial raged against sharing the road with cyclists and said she revved her engines at those she didn't like — behavior Farthing says is assault (the author has since called the piece "clearly satire"). He also points to a February blog post from a cyclist who found herself struck by a car multiple times.

His proposed bill, based on similar L.A. legislation in progress, would give cyclists recourse beyond criminal prosecution and what he considers a high burden of proof in going after offending drivers. In a city where the cycling community has increasingly found itself pitted against commercial interests (as in the city's hesitation and double-step on the L and M cycletracks, where many competing interests seem to have played a role) and automotive interests (such as AAA in recent years), it's fascinating to see such as bold move from WABA. Let's look deeper at what's being suggested.

Farthing writes that cyclists should have a "civil right of action for assault that also provides for attorneys’ fees," and in conversation with me, he stressed that the bill would fit well within the existing set of laws. The current draft states that if a driver threatens or assaults a cyclist, then he or she: 

...shall be liable for actual damages with regard to each such violation, and such additional amount as may be determined by a jury, or a court sitting without jury, up to three times the amount of the actual damages,or $1,000, whichever is greater, as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs of litigation.

The court can also award additional putative damage, the bill says, if warranted.

At the bottom of the WaBA post, Farthing links to a statement where supporters can sign off on their approval. He told me this is less a petition and more a way to marshal those who would be interested in such legislation. "We want to be at the forefront," Farthing said about such cyclist-protection law. "The solution is novel enough that there's not an existing community [to come together to support the bill naturally]."

 I'm curious about reactions from the city council as well as AAA and other D.C. transit voices. John Townsend, a spokesperson for AAA's mid-Atlantic division, described such bills as a "growing trend" in American cities and that "it looks like interesting proposed legislation." AAA has, Townsend told me, no official position on the bill at present. He hopes there will be public hearings on the legislation and that there will be plenty of public input if such a proposal continues. Townsend was also adamant that no threats are ever appropriate on the road, that "reckless" behavior and distraction puts all individuals in danger, whether in a car or on a bicycle. He also told me he hopes to speak with Farthing himself as the process moves forward.

We'll see how support does or doesn't rally in the coming months. For now, here's WABA's tentative draft of what an anti-harassment bill might look like

WABA Anti-Harassment Law (draft)

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