COLUMBIA — Gail Ludwig, an MU assistant professor of geography, prides herself on being a very careful cyclist. She knows the hand signal she needs to do to when she makes a left-hand turn. She uses cycling as her main method of commuting. And while she doesn't have too many "horror stories," she's had some experiences on her bike she wishes had never happened.
"I try to minimize the opportunity that might occur to have problems with both pedestrians and with automobiles," Ludwig said.
Bill 151-09, which would make it a misdemeanor to harass bicyclists, is on the agenda for the Columbia City Council. The council meets at 7 p.m. Monday in its chambers at the Daniel Boone City Building, 701 E. Broadway. The bill is the sixth item under Old Business on the agenda.
Ludwig was riding her bike home and was getting ready to turn left on Garth Avenue, an already narrow street, when she made the left-hand turning signal, but as she went to turn a car tried to pass her from behind.
"I couldn’t stop, so I darted across, and when I looked back the driver flipped me the bird," Ludwig said. "It was really, really close. I almost got really nailed badly."
That's the sort of episode that some members of the Columbia City Council hope to prevent by passing an ordinance making harassment of bicyclists a Class A misdemeanor. The ordinance is up for a vote during the council's regular meeting on Monday night. It's based on the language of a state law recently passed in South Carolina.
"This is catching on around the country," Robert Johnson of the PedNet Coalition in Columbia said. "South Carolina and Colorado both have passed state laws, but since it's much harder to pass things on a state level, we're starting locally, especially since Columbia is already bike friendly."
PedNet worked with Sixth Ward Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe and the city attorney's office to draft and perfect the ordinance.
The ordinance is intended to tackle issues that have been hard for officers and bicyclists to work out. It specifically addresses actions that put bicyclists in danger but also would prohibit using a horn or any other means that are "frightening or disturbing" to a bicyclist.
Johnson has had cyclists talk to him about harassment, and he said he's seen it firsthand during PedNet cycling classes.
"We're always looking for ways to encourage and help people use active forms of transportation," Johnson said. "We teach a class called Confident City Cycling, and I would say in 14 out of 16 classes we've had a motorist honk or scream or curse at our students."
The ordinance has been in the works for about three months, Johnson said.
"The city attorney wrote a proposed ordinance, which really didn't deal with the issues as much as I would have wanted," Johnson said. "So I met with the city prosecutor, Barbara Hoppe, the city attorney, and we tweaked the ordinance."
Hoppe also hopes the ordinance will educate people about how to coexist on the roads.
"It will educate those bicyclists and motorists regarding the law by having it clearly add bicyclists," Hoppe said. "Our goal is to educate, and if we never have to use the law because people observe and obey it, then that would be great."
Jessie Haden, spokeswoman for the Columbia Police Department, said that though police get few complaints from bicyclists, PedNet has legitimate concerns, and the department is taking them seriously. Hoppe said that's good.
"We’re looking at it from both sides," Hoppe said. "A car threatening a bicyclist has a much more dire outcome than a bicyclist threatening a car and we have to cover that in particular."
If the council passes the ordinance Monday, Haden said police will begin working with the Municipal Court to determine how to enforce it.
Johnson hopes the ordinance will pass and that change will begin immediately.
"We hope to pass the ordinance this summer and then incorporate it in the police department training in the fall," Johnson said.