It’s pretty much inevitable. Once you start riding your bike in the streets with any frequency, you will find yourself growing increasingly indignant about the poor skills and general lack of awareness and courtesy exhibited by a strikingly high proportion of drivers in your city. You will eventually get honked at, yelled at, and possibly even run off the road.
There is, I have found, a breed of driver that acts with impunity from the comfort and anonymity provided by their automobile. They believe their status aboard their two-ton steel and glass bubble renders them ruler of the roadways. It is as though in getting into the driver’s seat, they are immediately divorced from the rest of humanity.
The other day, I got flipped off by an old man who apparently didn’t believe I deserved to share the street with his Toyota Corolla. Another time, a mom with her two young kids in tow nearly plowed into me; she was so busy flailing her arms, honking her horn, and yelling at me to “get in the bike lane,” by which she ostensibly meant the sidewalk, where it is illegal to ride in my city for those of us older than fourteen.
Fortunately, as more and more people are taking to the streets by bike, I find myself confronted by this type of driver with noticeably less frequency. Most days, I make the sixteen-mile round trip between my apartment and my office without a single negative encounter. But occasionally, I’ll come across a driver whose ignorance, audacity and sheer irresponsibility makes me scream. Literally. Though often, said driver remains blithely unaware of ever being in the wrong.
Cyclists have a variety of ways of dealing with bad driver behavior. Some respond with cool indifference, carrying on as though nothing were amiss. One of my friends flashes an unexpected peace sign. Another blows kisses. I’ve known others to chase down offending drivers and let loose on them a tirade of expletives and even physical aggression. (I generally find that this latter type of response, though immediately quite gratifying, is not at all effective in changing bad behavior or in convincing an offender that they are acting inappropriately, to say nothing of the dangers entailed. Instead, responding to unseemly behavior in kind carries a high risk of proving to the driver, and anyone else who might be watching, that YOU are in fact the asshole.)
I think that one of the best ways to improve driver behavior is to simply ride a bike and encourage others to do so too. This may seem overly simplistic, with a frustratingly incremental payoff, but getting more people biking on the streets will over time make drivers more accustomed to anticipating and looking out for cyclists. It also improves the likelihood that drivers are themselves cyclists, and every cyclist I know who gets into a driver’s seat is much more understanding, aware, and patient than your average motorist.
It’s helpful to come up with a plan for handling bad driver behavior so that you’re less likely to be totally flustered — or driven to act irrationally — when you encounter it.
Lately, when I hear someone honking at me, I turn (assuming I can do this safely) and look the driver straight in the face. In looking the driver in the eye, I am better able to gauge the riskiness of the situation. Sometimes, I realize that the person was simply a friend trying to get my attention. But other times, it’s clear that the intention is to get me out of the way. If a driver is displaying reckless behavior, I move out of the way as quickly as possible. But often, this very simple gesture has a remarkable disarming effect. I’ve seen exasperated motorists turn red and cower in embarrassment just by virtue of this very human exchange.
I find that I’m often in a position to speak with a driver who is ignorant of my rights to the road. With hilarious frequency, the driver who was so very impatient to speed past me, in the process violating all manner of road rules and common courtesy, ends up stopped by the closest traffic light. This sometimes provides for the perfect chance to glide right up to the driver’s window and engage in a brief exchange.
You might come up with a brief script that you can employ should you be afforded a similar opportunity. Here’s a sample template: Excuse me (sir/ma’am). I understand that you are frustrated, but I think it might be helpful to point out that the law gives me every right to ride here and says you are supposed to leave ample space when passing me. I know that you are in a hurry, but just keep in mind that your hurry affects my life. Thanks (BIG SMILE)!
I can’t claim that this tactic has resulted in any dramatic shifts in perspective among the motoring public. It has, however, given me the satisfaction of knowing I’ve stated my case and hopefully helped to discourage similar bad behavior in the future.
A few months ago, I was riding home when an SUV pulled up next to me and rolled down its window. I started to tense up, readying myself for a showdown. “Get on the sidewalk!” I expected to hear. “You’re slowing down traffic!” I almost didn’t believe what I heard instead. “You’re my hero!” a woman’s voice shouted through the window as she carefully accelerated past me. I smiled the rest of the way home.