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Chuck Thies

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Bicycling and Equal Protection

Posted: 10/04/11 04:03 PM ET

"I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like."
- Queen, from the album Jazz.

Following outrage in the bicycling community over a YouTube video depicting a biker being harassed and then struck by a pick-up truck, nine D.C. Council members co-introduced the "Assault of Bicyclist Prevention Act of 2011." A hearing on the proposed law is scheduled for November 2nd.

These days, no legislation is worth its weight in paper without a special interest riding shotgun. Enter the Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA). In advocating for the proposed legislation, WABA sounds more like it is lobbying for trial attorneys than performing the work of its stated mission.

In the District of Columbia it is already illegal to use a vehicle to threaten and assault bicyclists. You can go to jail for such behavior. You can also be sued.

WABA says current "criminal law fails to address the behavior because the officer was not present." If that was true, then someone murdered outside the presence of a police officer would be in the clear, right?

WABA also says the "proposed law creates a civil right of action for an assaulted cyclist." There already exists a "civil right of action" available to anyone harmed by another person in the District, whether they are riding a bike or flying a kite. If someone who does not like your kite punches you in the face, you can sue the assaulter for medical expenses, lost wages and punitive damages.

The Assault of Bicyclist Prevention Act is hogwash and represents yet another expansion of our increasingly litigious society.

The legislation as proposed goes so far as to trump a pillar of our legal system called the "American rule." If written into law, the act would require a defendant who loses in civil court to pay the plaintiff's legal fees. Such a law would make bicyclists unique among civil litigants.

WABA says the provision would create an "incentive for attorneys to represent the victim." Who knew? Cash cows ride bikes.

In fact, long-standing legal precedent has established the practice whereby plaintiffs and defendants pay their own legal fees. Only in rare exceptions, such as in contract and consumer law, does a plaintiff have the right to recover legal fees.

WABA, though, believes that bicyclists should be assigned to an exceptional class. Under their proposal if a motorist assaults me as a pedestrian and you on a bike, I pay my attorney but the motorist pays yours. Does that seem fair?

Instead of upending our legal system, the D.C. Council needs to have a frank conversation with representatives from the bicycling community and explain to them that existing laws, civil and criminal, already address assault perpetrated on bicyclists by motor vehicle operators.

If the D.C. Council will not stand up to the squeaking wheels of a few misguided, vocal bicycling activists, what is next? Will the Council designate bicyclists a protected class? Or perhaps an endangered species?

No one questions the dangers associated with riding a bike in traffic. Crossing the street as a pedestrian is also dangerous. Attending an NFL game in Philadelphia decked out in Redskins attire is risky, too. All of the above is done at your own risk. If someone threatens, harasses or assaults you there are legal remedies, some of which can cost the perpetrators a hefty price or time in the hoosegow.

Yes, the behavior of the driver in the YouTube video is reprehensible. But no, we do not need new laws that create incentive for lawsuits and do nothing to further protect people.

If WABA wants to have a discussion about new bike laws, I have an idea: require bicyclists to purchase liability insurance. If a motor vehicle injures you, insurance mandated by law covers medical costs and perhaps more. Why should bicyclists, who use public roadways and sidewalks, be immune from insurance requirements?

Driving a motor vehicle on public roads is a privilege, not a right. Maybe we need to reconsider whether the same standard should be applied to bikes?

Who among bicyclists wants to have that conversation? How about the biker who knocked my then-pregnant wife to the ground? Or the one who would have surely injured my young son had I not pulled him from imminent disaster?

 

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