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Get Legal with Ray Thomas: Harassment of Bicycle Riders

Posted by on July 22nd, 2013 at 12:59 pm

Ray Thomas
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Welcome to our new legal column with Ray Thomas. Ray has been a legal resource for Portlanders (and beyond) for many years and we’ve used him as a source on countless stories. Now we plan to give him a greater presence on BikePortland. Disclaimer: Ray’s law firm Swanson Thomas Coon & Newton, is a BikePortland advertiser. As always, I welcome your feedback either in the comments or directly via email. Thanks for reading. — Jonathan

What can you do if someone harasses you while you are riding your bike? The first and best advice is to not do anything that gets you hurt, remember what you can in order to identify the perpetrators later, and call law enforcement.

Don’t Get Hurt
When someone harasses you while you are riding it is very upsetting. If the person is operating another vehicle you are in grave danger. While the traffic and criminal laws may be with the person on the bike, the laws of physics (mass and velocity) do not favor our vulnerable position on the roadway. We have no steel around us to protect us. Our vulnerability is often why bullies choose to pick on someone riding a bicycle.

“People who throw things and engage in ‘rough driving’ are doing it for a reason… each repeat episode makes them become further desensitized to civilized standards of moral safe behavior.”

If it happens to you, disengage from the situation. Don’t allow taunts or physical aggression to change your resistance to a confrontation. Remember that someone who harasses you almost certainly has less to lose than you do, or else they would not be doing it in the first place.

If you can note information for later about the driver and car or passengers like the license plate number and distinguishing features about the vehicle and occupants, do what you can. If you can take a photo without escalating the situation, an image may help to document the incident and later identify the people involved. Remember that just a license plate number may not be enough later to help law enforcement find the person, but it is a good start. Try to remember other details about the condition of the vehicle and appearances of the people.

Call out to others in the vicinity for help if you can, it causes attention that dissuades a troublemaker and may bring help. And call 911 right away (See the Oregon DMV advice page). Even the act of pulling out your cell phone to make a 911 call may be enough to end the incident.

Self Defense
Oregon’s law of self-defense is based on a “reasonable person” standard that allows proportionate escalation of force depending on the threat. A person may use non-deadly physical force for self defense or defense of a third person from what the person reasonably believes is the “use, or imminent use, of unlawful physical force.” (For more information, read Self-Defense for Bicyclists.)

Why Should I Report this To The Police?
If a harassing driver has intentionally or recklessly placed you in a position of danger or has thrown something out of a vehicle at you then it is important to report it to police. While in your case there may have been no injury, “no harm, no foul” is not a good rule when someone is using the bulk of a motor vehicle to bully another road user.

People who throw things and engage in “rough driving” (to borrow a NASCAR term) are doing it for a reason. Every time they act out they get a little thrill out of it. Unfortunately, each repeat episode makes them become further desensitized to civilized standards of moral safe behavior. In order to get the same “juice” the next time they need to escalate the danger or the fear caused, and then next time they do it the victim of their harassment may be left hurt on the side of the road and unable to call the authorities or identify the perpetrators.

Therefore, it is important to figure out where the line is between merely stupid or boorish behavior and dangerous and reckless endangerment. If it’s on the reckless endangerment side of the line it is best to call the police and ask for their help in dealing with the situation. The person you save may be a future victim of their misconduct.

What if the Police Won’t do Anything?
If you call the police and they can’t or won’t do anything then you need to consider your alternatives. You can post information about the perpetrator on blogs or forums like bikeportland.org, or call the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) to find out about current community resources for help.

Citizen Prosecution of Dangerous Drivers
You can also use the Oregon traffic court to prosecute the driver. Oregon has a little known procedure known as the Citizen Violation Prosecution (contained in ORS 153.058) that allows any citizen to use the traffic court to cite and convict a driver for a traffic violation (a “violation” is a non criminal offense, up to the level of severity of “Careless Driving”). The Statute of Limitations for initiating one of these prosecutions is six months. Follow the instructions on how to proceed in our guide to citizen prosecution of dangerous drivers or in the current edition of our free legal guide Pedal Power: A Legal Guide for Oregon Bicyclists.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Thank you.

  • Burk July 22, 2013 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks, Ray and Jonathan! This column is a great idea!

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    • Anne Hawley July 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm

      Seconded. I look forward to more!

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      • annefi July 22, 2013 at 4:56 pm

        I third that!

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  • BIKELEPTIC July 22, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    I realize this is different – but really irks me is that in Washington on the interstate and state highways they have hotlines to report road rage and aggressive drivers. (That’s not the irksome part. I love that actually!) They really promote this in the Seattle area. http://www.wsp.wa.gov/traveler/roadrage.htm

    Here in Oregon and Portland, their response to road rage/ aggressive drivers – Scouring the ODOT website, all I can find is “Call 911” – great. Overburden the already overburdened system with something I know they don’t care about.

    When I see drivers doing small illegal stuff, I post their license plate on Twitter with what they’re doing. It’s just the same dead end as calling 911.

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  • spare_wheel July 22, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    “If the person is operating another vehicle you are in grave danger..”

    The risk of being mugged at an ATM is quite likely higher than the risk of being assaulted by an angry motorist. Are we “in grave danger” when we withdraw cash from an ATM?

    “If it happens to you, disengage from the situation. Don’t allow taunts…to change your resistance to a confrontation.”

    Disengaging can reinforce bullying. I have yet to experience a confrontation where I felt the need to disengage.

    “Remember that someone who harasses you almost certainly has less to lose than you do, or else they would not be doing it in the first place.”

    Road rage occurs at all socioeconomic levels.

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    • Spiffy July 22, 2013 at 5:00 pm

      you post here a lot and I expected a better response from you…

      if you’re being harassed by somebody pointing a gun at you would you consider yourself in grave danger? I would…

      disengaging lets them know that you won’t be affected by their bullying… many will stop it there because they can’t get the reaction they want out of you… the ones that really want attention will just continue to engage and harass you…

      somebody that is rich will think that they have nothing to lose because the law is on their side and they can afford the lawyer and auto body repairs… somebody that is poor and lonely probably literally has nothing to lose…

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      • dwainedibbly July 22, 2013 at 5:42 pm

        Agreed. Speaking of guns, you never know who is carrying a firearm these days. Someone who is willing to harass a cyclist may be someone who is armed and feels like they can win any fight. Don’t provoke.

        I’ve been using ATMs for over 30 years and have never been mugged at one. I’ve been harassed on the road many times.

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      • spare_wheel July 22, 2013 at 6:38 pm

        “by somebody pointing a gun at you would you consider yourself in grave danger”

        your scenario is not harassment, its a more serious offence.

        “disengaging lets them know that you won’t be affected by their bullying”

        constructive *engagement* is my first choice when faced with verbal harassment from a motorist.

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    • Caleb July 23, 2013 at 11:08 am

      I was a bit surprised you disagreed with him saying we are in “grave danger”, given your recent post about driving in general:

      Drive a lethal piece of heavy machinery in a city full of human beings and you are bound to eventually hit, injure, or kill one.
      Your choice.

      You consider driving lethal, but harassment from drivers not? Or has your perspective changed since you made the quoted post?

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      • spare_wheel July 23, 2013 at 1:11 pm

        Verbal “harassment” is not lethal. In fact, because the harasser is acknowledging my presence, I suspect that I’m actually at lower risk of being run down by them (versus the typical motorist).

        The implied criticism of cyclists who *choose* to stand up to verbal abuse on this thread is, IMO, based on the erroneous belief that “engaging” only makes things worse. I believe this is a counterproductive form of learned helplessness.

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        • Caleb July 23, 2013 at 6:42 pm

          Ray did not specify which kind of “harassment” he was talking about, and I don’t believe he was criticizing people who choose to stand up to any harassment. Others might have been criticizing, but as far as I can tell, his stance is one of recognizing unknown variables involved in the risk against the cyclist – not that things will get worse, but they might, and the cyclist has relatively little protection from an automobile.

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          • spare_wheel July 23, 2013 at 11:53 pm

            the laws of physics (mass and velocity) do not favor our vulnerable position…our vulnerability is often why bullies choose to pick on someone riding a bicycle.”

            the FUD “laws of physics”.

            “Don’t allow taunts…to change your resistance to a confrontation.”

            the above statement is specific.

            If it happens to you, disengage from the situation

            it takes more than harmless taunts to get me to “disengage” from my right to the road.

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            • Caleb July 24, 2013 at 10:09 am

              I believe he was referring to what happens after an initial confrontation, the “harassment”, when he mentioned those taunts.

              Also, I agree with your assertion he was alluding to uncertainty in his mentioning “the laws of physics”, but I do not believe whether or not he was also alluding to fear or doubt is evident in his writing. Regardless, it’s my opinion that acknowledging uncertainty at every possibility is a wise step to take, and one that can also be taken in tandem with hope and confidence.

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  • lyle w. July 22, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    We need an LA-style ‘bike harassment’ law in place. I also think the availability of Go-Pro Style cameras and things like Google Glass are definitely positive going forward, and net gains when it comes to creating solid evidence in court for what otherwise would have been a ‘he said/she said’ type scenario where no other witnesses or physical evidence exist. And I think we all know how those type of cases pan out in court 99% of the time. The more wide-spread it becomes, the more it will also plant seeds of doubt in the mind of someone who otherwise couldn’t help themselves and wanted to lash out.

    It’s simply too easy to threaten, put in danger, and harass cyclists, and to do it in a way where you are virtually guaranteed to never face any legal ramifications. That has to also be why some people are so happy to do it, knowing the type of odds they’re working with. The only feeling worse than being threatened and treated like a subhuman stain simply for having the gall to bike is the feeling that what just happened to you would be totally impossible to ever pursue in a legal/police sense. It’s happened way too many times to me.

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    • Pete July 22, 2013 at 11:20 pm

      Some good points, especially as the cameras become more prevalent and harassment videos are posted to YouTube. Also memory will become bigger and cheaper in due time, allowing us to record longer rides/commutes, and eventually a dual front/back setup may become reachable.

      I think a bike harassment law is only planting the seed; most police officers in Sunnyvale, CA that I speak with, for instance, have no idea that their city is the third in the state to enact such an ordinance (behind L.A. and Berkeley) – or even that anti-harassment ordinances exist anywhere. The first real step I’d like to see made is that most motorists understand when/how/why cyclists ride outside of bike lanes (or even the difference between a bike lane and a shoulder for that matter). Many motorists will accelerate (and/or honk, drive close, etc.) if you partially take a lane… and they don’t consider it harassment. (It may be counter-intuitive but I’ve found it much safer to put myself completely in the lane – or ‘in harm’s way’ as some of my friends say).

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  • Drew July 23, 2013 at 3:08 am

    Am waiting for the “helmet of justice” to appear at a bike shop near me. It will have 7 cameras, audio and video starts by crashing, or tapping the helmet. Recording is not obvious and is in 360 degrees. I imagine those who don’t wear helmets will make an exception for something like this. I hope those software engineers have found a company to manufacture it.

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    • Seth D. Alford July 23, 2013 at 10:47 pm

      And live streaming the video through my cell phone.

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  • Ryan July 23, 2013 at 7:29 am

    The existence of dangerous drivers on the road is the #1 reason why I invested in buying a Contour ROAM 2 high definition video camera. I have it mounted on my helmet along with my 1800 lumen light. With my next paycheck I’ll be buying another camera. That one will be mounted directly under the saddle and will face the rear so that it can capture video from approaching vehicles. Do yourself a favor and buy a camera. It will be the best $250 spent on safety after your lighting system.

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  • Cory Poole July 23, 2013 at 7:52 am

    After years of riding bicycles and more recently skateboards in Chicago, Salem and Portland I have to say that harassment in Portland is comparatively very low. For me the bar is when things are thrown out the window at me. I have called police after such incidents in Salem and Chicago only to be treated like I was at fault for legally being on the road. As of yet, nothing has been thrown at me in Portland. I guess thats why I live here!

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  • Kenji July 23, 2013 at 8:45 am

    Marion County Justice courts no longer allow Citizen Violation Prosecutions according to Salem PD. (Which is interesting since it is specifically allowed by statute)

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    • GlowBoy July 23, 2013 at 9:07 am

      Cops don’t like the Citizen Prosecution statute. Was this an official communication from Salem PD, or something a cop told you? The officer may have been misinformed or outright lying.

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  • JonathanR July 23, 2013 at 8:51 am

    I only harass cyclists if I am also cycling, e.g. “hey, that’s now two red lights you’ve blown through, dude!”

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  • B July 24, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Any suggestions for women experiencing sexual harassment or taunting from men in vehicles. It seems the more I ignore, the worst it gets…

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  • Tara July 25, 2013 at 8:17 am

    Thank you very much for this. @B – unfortunately for taunting from vehicles, about the best you can do is dress like a man to keep the comments at bay.

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