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Barrister Bits - Sep 2013 - New Bicycle Law


Barrister Bits - Sep 2013
New Bike Law

by Debra A. Newby

DEAR READERS: Do you have a legal question that is burning on your mind?   If so, please email me. Names will remain confidential. Every inquiry may not be published, although we will publish as many as possible. This Q & A Legal Column is intended as a community service to discuss general legal principles and does not create an attorney-client relationship. 

Dear Debra:  I caught the last quips of your recent radio interview on KSRO in mid-August regarding the new bicycle law.  What is the new law and how does it work? 

    Signed: Alvin-the-Avid-Cyclist 

Dear Alvin:

Yes, there has been a surge of recent press coverage in Sonoma County regarding the new “Vulnerable User Protection Ordinance” (“Ordinance”).  The Ordinance was actively supported by the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition (“SCBC”) at both the county level, and in several local communities, like Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Sebastopol.  The gist of the new law is to try to minimize, or even eliminate, the rash of injuries (and deaths) suffered by bicyclist and pedestrians at the hands of the person behind the wheel of a car or other motorized vehicle. 

Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition modeled the new Ordinance after a similar provision that was passed in Los Angeles.  Gary Helfrick, the Executive Director of SCBC, informs me that the LA folks engaged in no less than 9 months of active planning and discussion with the LA City Attorney’s Office to make sure the language would pass muster.  

The Ordinance is designed to protect “vulnerable users” of our public roads, sidewalks, and pathways---bicyclists and pedestrians. The key trigger of the new Ordinance is the intent of the alleged violator.  In essence, the court will look at the offender’s “state of mind”.  If a person intends to physically injure a bicyclist or pedestrian, then a civil lawsuit can be filed against the driver.  The Ordinance is very specific on the types of offenses that would trigger a violation, for example, the driver forcing the Vulnerable User off  the road or distracting them (like throwing a beer can or other object at them), or failing to yield to a pedestrian.   

The lawsuit would be filed in civil court, which has a different burden of proof than a criminal case.   The injured party would have to prove by the preponderance of the evidence that the driver violated the law.   The key question is whether it is “more likely than not” that the driver intended to injure the bicyclist or pedestrian.  If the bicyclist meets this burden of proof and “wins”, then the judge or jury may award three times the damages (called “treble damages”), attorney fees and costs, and in some instances, punitive damages.   

The Ordinance was passed by Sonoma County making it enforceable throughout our entire county, a godsend to bicyclists who often ride in my “neck of the woods”-- smaller communities like Graton, Occidental, Monte Rio, and Jenner.  The Ordinance was also passed by the city of Santa Rosa and Sebastopol.  It is now in effect.   One key difference between the Sonoma County Ordinance and Santa Rosa’s and Sebastopol’s ordinance is that treble damages are not provided for in the Sonoma County Ordinance. 

The new Ordinance has re-opened the dialog between motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians.  Just check out any of the “blogs” on the topic and you will see anything from vitriolic insults against spandex to well-reasoned arguments of what happens when a 6,000 pound car impacts a 180 pound person on a Bianchi bike. For more information, feel free to contact SCBC (  

One last word for those vitriolic comments.  It may be helpful to just pause and perhaps recall the sense of joy that one may have experienced as a young child on a bike.  I remember taking a clothes-pin and attaching a playing card to the spokes of my pink banana bike just to make it sound “cool” when I pedaled.  Let’s reconnect to that joy when we pass each other on the roadway.  As H.G. Wells commented, “Cycle tracks will abound in Utopia”.  


Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 31 years.  She is a member of the California, Texas and Sonoma County Bar Associations.  She maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa and emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records).  Debra can be reached via email (, phone (707-526-7200), fax (526-7202) or pony express (930 Mendocino Avenue, Suite 101; Santa Rosa, 95401).