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Legal Reform Needed to Protect Cyclists

Friday afternoon I first saw a video of a driver viciously attacking a cyclist during the morning commute that day. The driver can be seen in a video running and punching a cyclist. As with many cell phone videos, this one doesn’t tell the whole story.

The incident began at approximately 7:50 am Friday morning when the green Mercedes pictured in the video pulled up behind two bicyclists in a bike lane on westbound Lawrence at Oakley. Traffic was backed up on Lawrence and the Mercedes was attempting to pass traffic on the right. The light at Oakley was red, so the bicyclists and adjacent line of cars were all waiting for the light to turn green. The Mercedes pulled up behind the cyclists, pushed one into the curb and almost drove over the second cyclist in an apparent attempt to force both cyclists out of the way. As you might imagine, the cyclists yelled at the driver. The driver then accelerated quickly and blew through the red light, striking a cyclist in the process. One of the cyclists followed the driver and attempted to get him to stop. The altercation in the video ensued.

It is my experience that Chicago Police Department doesn’t take bicyclist harassment or assault seriously. Although we have handled cases in which CPD pursued a hit and run driver or a harassing driver, most of the time these actions go unpunished. We will follow up on this story to find out if CPD actually charges the driver.

I’d expect that there were some injuries sustained in this incident, but often cyclists are harassed but not physically injured. In such an instance it is my experience that the CPD often does nothing to hold the offending driver responsible. If CPD doesn’t do anything and no one is injured the victim often has trouble finding a way of holding an offender responsible for their actions, partly because the Illinois Anti-Harassment statute has no provision for civil penalties.

Los Angeles and a few other places have anti-harassment statutes that provide for civil penalties, allowing cyclists to take violators to court themselves rather than relying on police. The key to such a law is to include a provision to provide for attorney fees taxed to the defendant driver if the cyclist wins at trial. Such a provision would allow attorneys to take smaller cases or cases with no physical injury. As the law currently stands in Illinois a cyclist can pursue a driver for an assault or battery, but their recovery for compensatory damages is tied to the amount of medical bills or the value of their damaged bicycle. Further, a cyclist suing for a civil battery or assault must bear the costs associated with suing the driver. If there isn’t an injury or medical treatment the cyclist will have a very difficult time finding a lawyer to take the case because the lawyer will be unable to take a fee that would justify the time to prepare and try a civil case.

Hopefully we’ll have good news to report regarding the offender from Friday. If not, it will be another story about a driver who got away with assaulting and harassing cyclists without being held responsible. Ideally the legislators in Illinois would consider adopting a law similar to that of LA and other places. If that happens cyclists will be able to hold road ragers and harassing drivers responsible for their actions.

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