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WABA Pushing Anti-Harassment/Assault of Bicyclists Bill

When we first read it, WABA had no intention of responding to Justine Whelan’s anti-cyclist rant, published by the Ballston Patch.  For the most part, the article’s content is so similar to the random blog comments we cyclists see regularly, it hardly seemed worth responding to.  But there was one interesting thing that I’d like to highlight–not for the content itself, but for what it shows about the mental state of certain bike haters.

Whelan writes:

I am SO sick of being behind some rando who thinks he’s the next Lance Armstrong in all of his official biking gear with the weird butt pants and neon outfits traveling at five miles an hour in a 35 zone.  I drive a stick shift, jerk, that too slow even for first gear.  How do I handle the situation?  I rev my engine in hopes of scaring the sheets out of the offensive biker.

The emphasis is mine, and it’s added to highlight that this behavior is assault.  Assault is, by definition, threatening or attempting to inflict offensive physical contact or bodily harm on a person that puts the person in immediate danger of, or in apprehension of, such harm or contact.  Trying to “scare the sheets” out of a cyclist by revving the engine from behind clearly counts as intentionally putting the cyclist in apprehension of harm.

Now, this isn’t about Justine Whelan’s behavior per se.  But it does provide some insight into a level of cyclist hate that most people are not willing to type up, sign, and publish.  It shows that there are motorists–seemingly normal people going about their daily business–who have such hatred for cyclists as a class of roadway users that they assault us as general practice.  Given the added power of a vehicle and an engine, Justine and those of similar mindset intentionally seek to intimidate the more vulnerable cyclist.

Sometimes it goes even further, however.

Those who follow area cycling blogs and forums have likely come across a story from “A Girl and Her Bike” about being struck repeatedly from behind while riding a Capital Bikeshare bike.  The driver struck her twice, then tried to run her over when he learned that he had picked the wrong CaBi rider to attack.

In her assessment of the driver’s rationale, she states:

I know what the driver was doing. He saw a young woman on a bicycle and thought it was be HILARIOUS to be a dick with his car. He did this because he thought there would be no consequences.

And she’s right.  Given the obvious physical differences between automobiles and bicycles, there is ample opportunity for bullying in the form of harassment, assault, and battery.  That opportunity should be curtailed by consequences for roadway bullies, but to date the imposition of consequences has been rare.

Yes, there are criminal laws against roadway assault.  But the criminal burden of proof is high, available witnesses are often scarce, and police are reluctant or unable to follow up if they did not witness the act themselves.

There is also a civil tort of assault, and a cyclist could, technically, bring a civil suit for assault.  However, bringing such a suit is likely to require an attorney and a fair bit of that attorney’s work.  But because intimidation, assault, and harassment do not often lead to big monetary damages (unless the cyclist is significantly injured or killed as a result), most victims cannot afford to pursue such cases.

The result, currently, is a situation in which harassment and assault of bicyclists goes undeterred through the legal system.  The “A Girl and Her Bike” case mentioned above is a truly rare instance in which the motorist is prosecuted–but still there will be no sentencing for his repeated, intentional assault. Thus, we need some mechanism to impose consequences on roadway bullies who harass and assault cyclists simply because those cyclists are more vulnerable.

Because we cannot change the criminal burden of proof, we need a law creating a civil right of action for assault that also provides for attorneys’ fees in order to ensure that cases can effectively be brought.  Below is a draft based on a similar bill in the City of Los Angeles.  We are at the very beginning stages of working to pass this law in the District and appreciate all support.

WABA Anti-Harassment Law (draft)

So while we cannot agree with much, if anything, in Justine Whelan’s cyclist-assault rant/admission, we can appreciate her honesty and use this as an opportunity to discuss the extent of the problem and propose a solution.

If you support this draft bill and are willing to help us work toward its passage, please SIGN HERE.  And please remember that only your generosity enables us to continue advocating for you, so please consider joining WABA or donating to support these efforts.

(Ms. Whelan’s full article can be found at http://ballston.patch.com/blog_posts/bikers-and-why-you-irk-me if you wish to bring traffic to such things.  If you don’t, you might just want to drop the editor of the Ballston Patch a line (Abigail@patch.com) and ask them to be more responsible in giving a platform to voices that treat the lives of others as a mere inconvenience.)

Rachel Cannon
Rachel Cannon

Re: Gerard You claim that cyclists are "largely indifferent and hostile to the vehicles for which roads are built". I take offense at this statement for 2 reasons. One, it is a glaring and untrue generalization. As a regular commuter and recreational cyclist, I respect others on the road, I follow traffic laws, and I am certainly not "indifferent" towards the fact that I'm surrounded by 2-ton masses of hurtling metal going at 25 miles an hour or more. While yes, there are certainly cyclists who are rude and practice unsafe behavior, there are also motorists and pedestrians who have little or no consideration for others. The finger-pointing game will get us nowhere, as you can point in almost any direction you look. Secondly, your statement implies that roads are strictly meant for motor vehicles, which, going by the law, is untrue. That sort of thinking is exactly why we need this bill in the first place. Cyclists are very much allowed in DC roads--and, also by law in many parts of the city, the sidewalks. We are also expected to use pedestrian crosswalks on most city bike lanes. This puts us in an awkward legal category between cars and pedestrians, which might be the cause of this "hypocritical dichotomy" you describe--it is certainly a dichotomy, but it is by no means hypocritical. Rather, it's a position we find ourselves stuck in because of the way the laws are written. I think this law will give cyclists more solid legal ground to stand on, which might encourage cooperation and decrease hostility between cyclists and motorists. Cooperation, after all, is the key to safer DC streets--not the finger pointing, as I mentioned earlier.


I think that any law to curtail harrasment on US roads should not be limited to just protecting cycling. Honestly all vehicle operators should show the proper respect to others or have the privelege taken away. Just be warned if you put your automobile close enough to push my bike then I have the ability to put my ULock into your radiator or through your windshield. The reality here is that a automobile in the hands of the wrong person can be a deadly weapon. I uderstand that accidents happen but lack of respect for life should not be tollarated. No one has the right to place or threaten another. Especially since those shoes will be on sale again in a few months. As far as not being able to manage the gears of your vehicle I say you need more practice and more driver education. Don't blame another for your lack of knwledge of how to properly pass a slower moving vehicle. Your frustration is misplaced and should be redirected to mastering your vehicle and stop blaming others for your lack of skills.

Gerard Swaven
Gerard Swaven

While appreciate your dedication, such a proposal is a dishonest response to a mutual problem. I certainly agree that cyclists should be able to have some recourse for certain behaviors directed at them, but the cycling community in general is largely indifferent and hostile to the vehicles for which roads are built. There is a rather hypocritical dichotomy of the cyclist mentality where they seek to enjoy the benefits of a motor vehicle while shielding themselves in the legal protections afforded to pedestrians. And such a law as this is rather ambiguous as to what consitutes "assault". For example, if an indifferent bike rider is travelling in the middle of a crowded street during rush hour with a line of twenty cars unable to get around, is it assault to honk your horn? Cyclists largely ignore the rules of the road, run stop signs and lights, cut in front of traffic, do not yield to pedestrians...perhaps you should consider these real problems as well.

Kevin Cole
Kevin Cole

Several years ago, a car full of punks decided to lean out and push me sideways while they were passing. I guess there were no cows to go tipping. I fell in traffic. Fortunately, the driver behind me stopped in time and offered me a ride, seeing my injury. Also fortunate, the injury was rather minor. Unfortunately, neither of us got a license number.


Why the $1,000 limit on treble damages? Between medical expenses (DC has the collateral source rule, I believe) and damage to the bike, actual damages could very easily be more than $1,000. Bike accidents often result in broken bones and a totaled bike. Medical expenses for a broken arm could cost multiple thousands, depending upon whether surgery is required. (I believe DC has the collateral source rule, so all medical expenses, not just the actual out-of-pocket ones, are compensable.) Moreover, in the DC area, $1,000 would barely cover the replacement cost of many bikes on the road. Total actual damages would be well into the multiple thousands. Under this scheme, while the injured party would be entitled to recover the actual damages, the "treble damages" are laughable becuase they are capped at $1,000. They're not actually "treble." Why? Also, to the extent that the driver would be defended by his insurance company in such a suit, neither the treble damages nor the punitive damages permitted by the bill probably will be covered by the auto policy. So the bill should permit recovery of noneconomic damages, which are covered. I'd suggest saying that the cyclist is entitled to actual and noneconomic damages, as awarded by the Court, plus punitive damages for reckless, intentional, egregious, or criminal conduct. Whatever you do, take out the $1,000 cap.

Shane Farthing
Shane Farthing

Jocelyn: Nothing in this proposal would remove a cyclists ability to seek payment for medical expenses, damage to the bike, etc. However, this draft bill deals with the consequences of harassment/assault--not the consequences of a crash/battery. The point here is to make it easier for cyclists to pursue their legal rights not to be assaulted/harassed without removing the separate avenues for pursuing damages after a crash. (In other words, the harassment would not destroy the bike, so the harassment bill proposal does not seek to replace the bike's value. But if there's a crash that totals the bike, the cyclist would still have all existing methods to pursue replacement of the bike's value.) And on the issue of the $1000 or treble damages: the draft states "whichever is greater"--making $1000 a floor rather than a ceiling. If you have further questions, please join us at the "What to do after a crash" discussion on the 19th. We can touch on this proposal after the main discussion. RSVP here to attend.

Clarence Dillon
Clarence Dillon

Dear WABA, Please take this one step further: per US Code, Title 22, Ch.38, Para. 2656f(d), Definitions, "(2) the term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents;" So, people who advocate "[scaring] the sheets" out of cyclists (or even, "teaching them a lesson"; another phrase I often hear) should be branded domestic terrorists and the consequences of their behavior should be that high.


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