COURSEY: Let’s change the car-vs-bike conversation

Published: Monday, August 20, 2012 at 3:49 p.m.

‘This one runs on fat & saves you money’ © Peter Drew of Adelaide

Tired of reading about car-bike conflicts on Sonoma County roads? Well, I’m tired of writing about them.

It’s time for something to change.

A good start would be in the community of Oakmont, which is a great place to ride a bike on public streets but in my personal experience is home to too many residents who have a chip on their shoulder when it comes to cyclists. It’s also home to the man accused of swerving his car into cyclist Toraj Soltani last week on Pythian Road, and then chasing Soltani onto the golf course and mowing him down from behind.

It would be nice to hear some cries of outrage from people who live in Oakmont, maybe a statement from the community’s governing board that this kind of behavior is unacceptable and does not represent the values of that community. Instead, we read in Sunday’s paper that road-rage suspect Harry E. Smith is considered by neighbors to be “a nice individual” who is “no more testy than the rest of us.”

Are you kidding me? Smith, 81, was driving on a license that had been suspended because of a road rage incident on Highway 101, and is a suspect in at least two other aggressive incidents involving bicyclists that occurred prior to his alleged attack on Soltani.

If that is typical Oakmont testiness, the place needs to be quarantined.

The truth is, I don’t believe Smith represents the norm at Oakmont. But, increasingly, I believe this case represents something seriously wrong in Sonoma County. There exists a small but disturbing number of drivers who feel empowered and enabled to take out their frustrations on bicycle riders.

This can take many forms, from hurling insults or objects out of a car window to “buzzing” cyclists with a speeding car to actually ramming into them on the road – and now on a golf course. I’m an avid cyclist, and while I have not suffered the worst of these attacks (knocking on wood here), I have been the victim of some, and I hear about others on an all-too-frequent basis.

The knee-jerk reaction seems to be that “the cyclist must have had it coming.” But no one “deserves” to be attacked with a car, or have things thrown at them when they are defenseless and rolling along at 20 mph. Soltani said Smith seemed to target him because he was riding with his hands off of the handlebars – something most of us learn to do safely as children. Rose Zoia, who told police she had a run-in with Smith last fall, said he railed at her for being “too young to be riding in Oakmont,” according to the Police Department’s press release.

Let’s be clear – Oakmont is a community for residents age 55 and over, but its streets are public. They are paid for and maintained by the citizens of Santa Rosa, and all of us have the right to use them. That means regardless of our age, where we live or what our vehicle of choice may be.

And that goes for every public street and road. It seems ridiculous to even feel a need to say that, but apparently there is a belief among some drivers that bikes don’t belong on certain roads.

Again, it’s time for that to change. And it’s time for the animosity directed toward cyclists to change, as well. We all know that driving can be frustrating. But when you see another driver on a cell phone, or make a bad lane change, you don’t throw a beer can at him or try to run him off the road. Why do it to a cyclist?

Part of it is because we’re vulnerable, of course. But another large part seems to be that our society has not sent a clear enough message that it is unacceptable.

This requires a more serious approach from law enforcement and our criminal justice system. Why was Smith – whose car, description and license plate had been reported months ago by Zoia – not immediately identified as a suspect in Soltani’s attack? Police said “no actual crime had occurred” in Zoia’s case, but there needs to be a database of drivers reported as aggressive to cyclists on our roads, and those drivers should know that police have them on their books. If and when they are convicted of a crime, they should be punished just as harshly as if their weapon had been a gun.

We also need a more serious approach from the general public. We as a community need to decide that aggression toward cyclists will not be tolerated. We can’t “balance” a potentially deadly attack on a cyclist with scoldings about bikers riding two abreast or rolling through stop signs. There is no excuse for using a car to intimidate or injure another human being – period.

Drivers need to know that if they do use their car for that purpose, other citizens who witness it are going to report them, police are going to find them and the criminal justice system is going to prosecute them.

And society is going to condemn them as the cowards and criminals that they are.

Let the change begin today.

Chris Coursey’s blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.