Harassment, cycling, and the law

Harassment, cycling, and the law

Following on from Friday’s post, and having come across an article from CityLab, perhaps we should have a little think about the harassment that cyclists have to put up with, and why that is starting to be taken more seriously by some authorities, but once again, none here.

Now, to be fair, roads have always been dangerous, to a greater or lesser extent. Usually that danger is more on the passive side of things, with inattentiveness and straight-forward negligence being the main feature, but now and then someone does something purposely to threaten another road user, which elevates the situation to more of a criminal act.


See, it is only recently, and only in some places, where the law is starting to consider the danger that cyclists are subject to above and beyond the standard kind. Danger is an ever-present factor when cycling on the roads in moving traffic and next to parked cars, which is why education, better infrastructure, rules, and enforcement of those rules are important. That’s the standard, unfortunately.

The kind of danger that cyclists are facing that is now being considered by some cities is the same kind that we have been paying more attention to for the last few years when it comes to our children at school, and that is bullying. Harassment. Assault.

Both myself and my wife have been harassed while riding more often than I would like to recount, both verbally and physically. The worst case was a few years ago when we were living in the UK, riding on one of our usual routes (Bath Rd, A4), which isn’t the best road, but it is straight, has enough room to pass safely, and is reasonably frequented by cyclists.

Harassment, cycling, and the law

We were riding single file, I was behind, and a small car full of yobs passes rather close. Close enough that the rear passenger, hanging out of the window while taking a swat at me, only just brushed me, but did manage to get my wife square on the backside. I hope he broke or dislocated his arm, what with the speed they were doing, but while I didn’t manage to get a number plate, my wife managed to get some severe bruising, yet fortunately, stayed upright.

On that same stretch of road, heading the other direction (and on another day), I had a mostly full can of beer thrown at me from a passing car, hitting my helmet. Then there is the yelling, shouting and honking as cars sneak up on you so as to make you jump, the usual name calling and unsolicited advice, not to mention all the close passes to “teach you a lesson”.

Society gets up in arms about the bullying of kids (as it should), but ignores or even accepts the bullying of vulnerable road users. I don’t know, maybe that’s because you can’t avoid being a kid, but you can avoid cycling in traffic. “There are options”, however poor and costly they may be, “so if you don’t want to get harassed, don’t take the bike”, might be the line of thought.

This harassment is might just be a bit of fun and games for some, or because the driver has an inflated sense of entitlement, or a massive chip on their shoulder, or because they genuinely but for no good reason hate cyclists, but any way you slice it, it’s dangerous, and no matter how I read this, it sounds exactly like aggravated assault:

A person is guilty of aggravated assault if he or she attempts to cause serious bodily injury to another or causes such injury purposely, knowingly, or recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life; or attempts to cause or purposely or knowingly causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon.

I know full-well that this isn’t more of an Australian problem than it is elsewhere, but you can’t help but wonder if this behaviour is considered a little permissible here, given the propensity of the media to make light about this harassment, and outright assault, of cyclists. For a little background on this, read this article from The Conversation.

Whatever the case, the good news is that some cities, but obviously none in Australia, are starting to take this harassment a little more seriously.

Back in 2009, Columbia, Missouri was an early adopter of anti-harassment laws for cyclists, bringing into effect an ordinance making it “a class A misdemeanor of harassing a cyclist”. South Carolina has similar laws, as does Colorado, Illinois, and Kansas City, Missouri has since passed one too. There are actually quite a few cities that have been getting on board with this.

In these locations and others, the police have the power to bust you for harassing a cyclist even if they were not there to witness it, but more recently, a few other cities in the US have raised the bar even further.

Los Angeles passed anti-harassment laws in 2011, but, as Streetsblog reported at the time, rather than making it the usual criminal case, “the bottom line is that it gives cyclists the opportunity to pursue civil remedies against those who harass cyclists” if a criminal charge doesn’t cover your loses or even exists in the first place. In an article from Grist, the addition of a civil case has cropped up in a few more places:

in the year and a half since L.A. passed its law, Washington, D.C., and the California cities of Berkeley, Sunnyvale, and Sebastopol have all passed similar ordinances. Healdsburg, Calif., is now considering one, too.

So, the US is stepping up their game when it comes to ensuring that road users other than cars are looked after. Certain countries in Europe have had tougher or at least more balanced laws in place for quite some time (think presumed liability) that make motorists think twice about risky behaviour around cyclist.
Here in the Lucky Country, luck is pretty much all cyclists often have to depend on for justice in cases where they are harassed. While much of the world is forward thinking enough to realize that cycling is a way to make cities function better and are putting in place measures to encourage it, Australia has a government that is ineffective in passing any significant legislation or funding to encourage cycling (the biggest development in recent times is some States introducing a safe passing distance law), and it’s most significant cycling-related law to date has instead put the onus on cyclists by being one of the only countries in the world to force its citizens to wear a helmet. I’m all for helmets, but that’s not really making the streets safer, is it? If anything, it’s an admission that the streets are actually quite unsafe. That’s how we get a cycling mode share for our major cities sitting at an average of just 1.7%. Nice work.
Whatever city you live in, might I suggest that you write your elected representative a quick email demanding better conditions for cycling. Infrastructure would be nice, but in the meantime, it costs nothing to pass a law that protects vulnerable road users from being harassed. Not sure what to write? Just forward them this article, or any of the relevant linked articles, or tag them on our Facebook or Twitter link to the article.
Adelaide: Lordmayor@adelaidecitycouncil.com
Melbourne: lordmayor@melbourne.vic.gov.au
Sydney: clover@clovermoore.com
Brisbane: lordmayor@brisbane.qld.gov.au
Perth: lord.mayor@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
Darwin: lord.mayor@darwin.nt.gov.au


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