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Bike Law 101: Harassment and how to deal with it

(Photo © J. Maus)

Having commanded ownership of the road for decades, sharing it is an often unfamiliar and difficult idea for many motor vehicle operators. To now be required to share that space with people on bicycles is for some, rather difficult. Many people honestly believe bicycles don’t have the same legal rights to the roadway that cars do.

This conviction is fueled by a general unawareness and confusion about the rights and duties of operating a motor vehicle and it’s compounded by unpredictable and unsafe behavior of some bike riders. The potent mix of fear and entitlement on both sides of the windshield can sometimes ignite an explosion of anger; an explosion that often falls into one of three legal categories: harassment, menacing or assault.

Those actions are so serious that they are not traffic violations, they are crimes.

How to identify the various forms of vehicular harassment and what to do if it happens to you.
(Illustration by Dan Pegoda/Animated Traffic Law Center for

A person commits the crime of harassment (ORS 166.065) if they intentionally subject you to, “offensive physical contact” or by, “Publicly insulting such other person by abusive words or gestures in a manner intended and likely to provoke a violent response.”

Menacing is defined in ORS 163.190. A Class A Misdemeanor, Oregon law says,

“A person commits the crime of menacing if by word or conduct the person intentionally attempts to place another person in fear of imminent serious physical injury.”

Someone yelling threats at you or swerving in your direction would definitely fall into this category.

Assault in the fourth degree, ORS 163.160, is more serious. It applies when someone actually crosses the line (literally and figuratively in the case of traffic interactions) and physical injury results.

If you think of these laws as people they might resemble something like the following:

Harassment is a punk. This is a person who will spit on you or hit you with something. He may purposely bump into you as he walks by. He might even poke you in the chest while giving you a lecture about where you’re supposed to operate your vehicle. He doesn’t physically injure you; he just annoys the heck out of you.

Menacing is the hothead. This is the guy with a violent temper and a mean mouth. This is the guy who threatens to harm you with his fists, a club or a vehicle.

Assault in the fourth degree is the thug. This is the guy who actually crosses the line and causes you physical injury.

As we’ve seen play out time and time again, when these situations occur, they can easily escalate. If you find yourself in this position, you’ll need more than legal advice to get out of it smoothly. Below are some basic pointers for what to do if it happens to you.

Instead of rising to the emotional pitch of the situation, protect yourself by disengaging. It’s better to focus your energy on a positive outcome.

Use that energy to collect as much evidence as possible. Get a good look at the driver, write down their license plate number and note the year, make and model of the vehicle.

Obtain the names and numbers of witnesses. Think evidence; and the more, the better. Use your cell phone to take pictures and audio. Above all, don’t participate in the other person’s rage. There’s too much raw emotion to be heard sensibly about your rights and the need to respect them (trying to give someone a lesson in Oregon law during when tempers are high isn’t very effective).

Call 911 and report that a crime has been committed. If the police respond to your call, the driver may be arrested. If the police don’t arrive, take advantage of Oregon’s Citizen Prosecution Statute (ORS 153.058) and issue the person a traffic citation yourself for any traffic laws that may have been violated. (If you need help with the process, contact the Bicycle Transportation Alliance or contact the local law firm that wrote the book (literally) on the topic, Swanson, Thomas and Coon.)

Keep in mind that to have the law on your side, you must be operating your bicycle legally on the roadway. Knowing the law and abiding by it is invaluable when victim to another vehicle operator whose intent is to intimidate or bully you.

— Bike Law 101 appears twice a month on BikePortland. It’s written by Karen Lally and Kurt Jansen of the non-profit Animated Traffic Law Center based in Eugene, Oregon. For more info on bike law, browse the Bike Law 101 archives. If your company or organization would like to sponsor this column, please get in touch.

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