Dangerous Neighborhood Cranks and What to do About Them
by Ray Thomas
Ray Thomas is a Portland bike lawyer.
If you listen to groups of bicyclists talking about riding in Oregon during food or rest breaks, you will inevitably hear about dangerous neighborhood cranks who for some reason have it in for bike riders. These folks will typically use whatever equipment they have access to in order to register their protest to the existence of humans on two wheels. Typically, these folks will engage in "rough driving" maneuvers that threaten to crowd riders off of the roadway, leave their aggressive dogs outside untied during peak riding times, "seed" the road with tacks, or use the horns on their vehicles to intimidate riders lawfully using the roadways. While tolerance and forgiveness are admirable human traits, at some point, an organized approach must be taken in responding to the dangers posed by folks with a bad attitude and reckless disregard for the rights of cyclists. I have previously discussed liability of dog owners for injuries (Oregon Cycling article - "Who Let the Dogs Out" - May 2003 - which may also be found on our website here).
The purpose of this article is to use a recent example to illustrate how to peaceably approach the problem. While individual instances of harassment may not result in personal injuries, a perpetrator of bicycle harassment chooses their victims somewhat indiscriminately and the potential for serious injury exists unless something is done to stop the behavior. For many of these folks, a roadside confrontation is part of the fun of using a several thousand pound steel vehicle to intimidate the vulnerable. While yelling at one giving you a rough time may be satisfying in the short run, there are significant dangers of potential escalation into a physical confrontation. Further, one can be sure that any hard feelings that remain after such a confrontation occurs will likely be taken out by the driver on other bicyclists.
Consequently, it is important to be vigilant in identifying these folks and responding with a coordinated effort that includes providing sufficient history and background so that law enforcement can identify the pattern of abusive conduct which justifies expenditure of scarce law enforcement and judicial resources to bring it to a stop.
The Red Pickup Guy
For a number of years members of the Salem Bicycle Club, recreational riders, and tourists have encountered a person in West Salem, Oregon who beeps his horn, drives very closely, and when challenged, engages in shouting matches with cyclists. His appetite for this sort of behavior has ruined a number of rides for folks and carries considerable potential for serious physical injury to riders, or to himself if somebody was to get their hands on him. After discussing the problem, we decided that an organized response may avert a disaster and end the problem.
Salem Bike Club members, led by "red pickup guy" victim Grace McCabe and Doug Parrow, board member of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA), partnered up to collect accounts from bicycle riders about their encounters. We then ran a background check on the "red pickup guy" available through the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and private data collection services like Accurint. Next, we collected background information about the club members who had responded to our query about past difficulties with the "red pickup guy," added information to the e-mails that identified their positions in the Salem area community (in order to show that they were law abiding citizens who were leaders in the community) and then asked a volunteer lawyer (me) to write a letter on behalf of the bicycle community to the Polk County District Attorney.
Some folks had a history with the "red pickup guy" of calling the police after a harassment incident which then became deep background material in the "red pickup guy" legend but resulted in no prosecution. Further, responding law enforcement sometimes went so far as to suggest that maybe bicyclists should stay off of the road where the "red pickup guy" lived in order to avoid the unpleasantness associated with him and his pickup. This suggestion, while it may have been filled with good intentions, was not what area bicyclists expected when they related their repeated problems. Since we had received initial negative responses about previous efforts to prosecute the "red pickup guy", it was important to provide a detailed letter which included the history and types of offenses involved. Our goal was to provide sufficient incentive to spur a prosecution so that the DA would move forward through investigation or prosecution to make the "red pickup guy" quit before somebody got seriously hurt. The letter we sent to the District Attorney provided as follows:
"Dear Mr. _______:
This letter is written to you as a request on behalf of a number of Salem-area bicycle riders, and Doug Parrow, board member of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (BTA) of Oregon, to complain about a Polk County resident regularly engaging in dangerous and aggressive harassment of bicyclists on Brush College Road in West Salem.
Over the last several years Mr. _______, who lives and drives along Brush College Road in West Salem, has engaged in a campaign of harassment against bicycle riders who are lawfully and safely exercising their right to ride on the public roadway. Mr. _______ tactic is to ride up on bicyclists from behind and then lay on his horn, startling them and, after watching the trouble and upset he causes, Mr. _______ continues to drive behind, alongside or pass with an extremely narrow distance between his truck and the bicycle, all the while activating his horn for blasts that last as long as ten seconds. While his behavior has not as yet resulted in a serious crash, it is only a matter of time before someone is sufficiently startled to crash and suffer a serious injury.
Mr. _______ has been advised by both law enforcement and the bicyclists he has harassed that his behavior is improper and potentially dangerous. On occasions when he has spoken with the police or bicyclists, he claims he is merely providing a "warning." However, Mr. _______’s behavior combines abusive use of the horn on his vehicle with aggressive and intimidating driving techniques.
The purpose of this letter is to provide you with a summary of information relating to Mr. _______, a collection of accounts from area citizens about his behavior, and a copy of his driving record. The persons he has repeatedly harassed are all using Brush College Road, which is a paved public roadway in West Salem that is popular with recreational bicyclists who are looking for a rural ride with a challenging hill climb.
For your review, I am providing letters from _______, a Salem physician and former NFL football player; _______, a West Salem resident who is an economist, elected officer in a bicycle club, and expert bicycle rider; _______, a local area cyclist and West Salem resident; Grace McCabe, Finance Director for the Housing Authority of the City of Salem, a long-time Salem resident, and bicyclist; _______, a Salem resident; and _______, a resident of Gervais who rides regularly with the Salem Bicycle Club.
As you can see from the accounts, Mr. _______ has decided to indulge his aggressive dislike for bicyclists in his neighborhood with behavior that is threatening, dangerous and a disturbance of the peace.
We are writing to ask that your office initiate criminal proceedings against Mr. _______ for his behavior. Mr. _______’s behavior fits within the following crimes:
A. Menacing (ORS 163.190).
"A person commits the crime of menacing if by word or conduct the person intentionally attempts to place another in fear of imminent serious physical injury."
B. Recklessly Endangering Another Person (ORS 163.195).
"A person commits the crime of recklessly endangering another person if the person recklessly engages in conduct which creates a substantial risk of serious physical injury to another person."
C. Disorderly Conduct (ORS 166.025).
"A person commits the crime of disorderly conduct if, within intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance or alarm, or recklessly creating a risk thereof, the person (a) engages in ... threatening behavior or (b) makes unreasonable noise or ... (d) obstructs vehicular or pedestrian traffic on a public way."
In addition, _______ has repeatedly violated the Oregon Vehicle Code provisions that follow:
Following Too Closely (ORS 811.485).
"A person commits the offense of following too closely if the person . . . (a) drives a vehicle so as to follow another vehicle more closely than is reasonable and prudent."
Horn Use Limits (ORS 815.225).
"A person commits the violation of use limits on sound equipment if the person ... uses a horn otherwise than as a reasonable warning or makes any unnecessary or unreasonably loud or harsh sound by means of a horn or other warning device."
As you can see from the letters attached from area citizens, Mr. _______ has been repeatedly warned to stop his behavior, both by riders and law enforcement officers. While one might be tempted to dismiss his behavior as that of a neighborhood crank, because he is so persistent and aggressive behind the wheel of his truck, a very real potential for serious physical injury, to him or to someone else, is highly likely. His behavior toward Grace McCabe, where he used his truck to block in a lone female rider, was witnessed by area resident _______. It was a dangerous and outrageous way to treat someone lawfully riding a bicycle.
We understand that except for these incidents, Mr. _______ does not have other traffic convictions except for an Illegal Pass conviction in July of 2003 in Polk County. The fact that he has not been arrested has apparently encouraged him to feel that he has license to continue to engage in his aggressive driving behavior. If any of the incidents described were an isolated event, it is quite unlikely that his behavior would ever be brought to your attention. However, he apparently feels that it is his right to intimidate bicyclists riding on the road near his driveway. Previous efforts to have him cited were initiated through the first law enforcement responders dispatched from 911 calls and have not changed his behavior. Driving one’s pickup truck on the roads near home, and riding a bicycle on Polk County’s scenic roadways, are mutually compatible activities and should be supported and encouraged. However, when a person chooses to use his pickup truck as an aggressive force on the roadway and its horn, a piece of equipment to be reserved for emergencies only, as an intimidating weapon, immediate intervention by law enforcement prosecution is necessary.
Doug Parrow, board member of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance (Oregon’s state-wide bicycle safety and education organization) and I would like to meet with you to discuss this matter further, at your earliest opportunity. The citizens whose accounts are provided with this letter are available and willing to testify about their experience with Mr. _______. We will be contacting you in the next day or so to discuss what next step might be completed in this process."
(names removed to protect the innocent and guilty)
The letter contained the collection of e-mail reports from the other victims of the "red pickup guy." We followed up with telephone calls to the District Attorney’s Office and found out that the case had been assigned to a Deputy District Attorney and that an investigation had begun with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. We later heard that about sixty (60) days after we sent the letter, and while the investigation was continuing, there had been yet another incident with another 911 call from an upset bicyclist which we added to the prosecution file. Since the investigation we requested resulted from the letter, we never had to move to the meeting with the DA as requested, but if the letter had gone unheeded, the next step would have been to make an appointment for representatives of the bicycle community to sit down with the DA and discuss the public safety hazards associated with the "red pickup guy."
If the law enforcement folks decide not to prosecute such an offender, then the bicycle community must respond by taking the matter to the court of public opinion. Letters to the Editor, e-mails and letters to elected officials such as the District Attorney and Sheriff, all contribute to create pressure to deal with a public safety hazard. If the attitude of law enforcement is that bicyclists should not be present where they have a legal right to ride, then it may be possible to file a civil lawsuit against the perpetrator to make the motorist answer in court for their behavior. While an action for damages may not produce any financial reward, the public scrutiny coupled with the experience of being held accountable in court may create a change in behavior.
Confrontations with dangerous drivers are never a good idea. These folks have little to lose or they would be doing something more positive. Unfortunately, harassing motorist are frequently engaging in tormenting vulnerable roadway users for their own entertainment. Confrontations and yelling matches may merely serve to stir these folks up and encourage further misbehavior. Since, engaging in sadistic behavior tends to desensitize a person’s humanity and creates an ever increasing appetite for achieving the level of excitement that they derive from the confrontation, inevitably they "up the ante" by blowing the horn more loud and long, cutting closer to the bicyclists, or engaging in higher intensity confrontations with their victims. Use of peaceful and legal means to break the spiral of escalating confrontations is important before someone gets hurt.
We hope that our experience with the "red pickup guy" will serve as a model for others to identify and peaceably remove dangerous neighborhood cranks from bicycle ride routes.