The Los Angeles City Council on Wednesday passed a pioneering new law intended to protect bicyclists from harassment by motorists.
The ordinance, which backers described as the toughest of its kind in the nation, makes it a crime for drivers to threaten cyclists verbally or physically, and allows victims of harassment to sue in civil court without waiting for the city to press criminal charges.
Its passage comes one day after a 63-year-old bicyclist was struck and killed by a car on a downtown street — an incident that bicycle advocates say underscores the dangers cyclists face.
The new law is the latest bicycle-friendly measure to hit L.A., where an increasingly vocal community of activists has been calling for more protections.
Several of them showed up at City Hall on Wednesday to share stories of harassment; they described motorists who threw objects, shouted insults and tried to run them off the road.
As the number of cyclists on L.A. streets has swelled — local census data from 2008 show that about 13,000 commute to work on bikes, a 48% increase over the last eight years — so too have conflicts between motorists and bicyclists. Some motorists have accused cyclists of flouting traffic laws, while cyclists have complained that they are treated like second-class citizens.
The new law allows cyclists to sue in civil court and collect up to three times their damages, plus attorney's fees. Ross Hirsch, a lawyer who helped craft the law, said the potential for high compensation will make attorneys more likely to take on cyclists as clients.
Andy Clarke, president of the League of American Bicyclists, said no other city offers bicyclists an equivalent civil recourse. "It's a groundbreaking move," he said.
L.A. lawmakers have garnered national attention with several bike-friendly measures in the last two years.
In 2011, the Los Angeles Police Department convened a bicycle task force and launched new training that acquaints officers with laws that protect cyclists, including traffic codes that relate to bicycle lanes and rights of way. And earlier this year, the city passed an ambitious new bicycle master plan that calls for the paving of more than 200 miles of new bicycle routes every five years.
City Councilman Bill Rosendahl, who championed that plan and wrote the new anti-harassment law, said, "It's about time cyclists have rights."
He became an advocate for the community in 2008 after two cyclists pedaling on a curvy road in his Brentwood district were seriously injured when a driver slammed on his brakes in front of them. The motorist, physician Christopher Thompson, was convicted of numerous charges, including assault with a deadly weapon.
At the state level, legislators are considering a law that would require drivers to give cyclists at least 3 feet of space while passing. Senate Bill 910 is cosponsored by the city of Los Angeles, and it has won the support of local politicians, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who recently launched a "Give Me Three!" safety campaign.
Villaraigosa knows how dangerous riding a bicycle can be. Last summer, he bruised his head and shattered his elbow when he was jolted off his bike by a turning taxicab.