Dear Angry Driver,
We met most recently in my neighborhood, surrounded by road closures and detour signs. I first noticed you as I saw the red and blue flashing lights of a motorcycle cop parked behind you. “Ugh, that sucks,” I thought as I approached. Anyone who has been pulled over knows that’s a quick way to have one’s day ruined.
Your rush was immediately evident when you lurched from your spot on the shoulder just as the cop was leaving your window. I was thankful that you saw me before proceeding and halted just in time to let me by. Not being in a vehicle myself, I’m particularly vigilant whenever pedaling my bike through the city.
I waved a thank-you, proceeded to the next intersection and was forced to turn left due to road closures. The next thing I know I hear a revved engine and what sounded like yelling from behind. Suddenly there you are, speeding past me and shouting out your window. We were about 400 feet from the next intersection, and wouldn’t you know that even in your haste, you didn’t get to merge into traffic any faster than if you’d have just stayed behind me to ensure my safety.
“You need to move over! I ride bikes, too, and you’re too far over! You’re taking up the entire lane!! MOVE OVER!!”
This was the extent of our brief interaction at the stop sign. I was dumbfounded. And pissed off. I could feel that white-hot adrenaline swelling in my limbs--the kind that makes your mouth go dry, your heart thump against your ribcage and your hands shake as they grip the handlebars. I was poised to react just as aggressively as you'd attacked me and I had an arsenal of sailor-fitting words on the tip of my tongue to launch back at you.
“What the F*&$ is wrong with you???” Perhaps this could be accompanied by a number of obscene, angry bodily gestures. “Stop harassing cyclists, you %#*@&!!!”
Or I could have given you a snarky retort:
“Um, I don’t think you’re in a position to be lecturing me about the rules of the road seeing as you were just pulled over by a cop not 60 seconds ago.”
I did neither. Despite my jittery indignation, triggered by fear and fed by temper, I responded in the only manner I thought appropriate at the time: I gave a big wave and said, “Thank you!”
Justifying any defensive or combative reaction would have been easy. In the past 8 weeks I’ve experienced three of the closest vehicular near misses of my life while riding my bike. On two occasions, other drivers who witnessed the encounters stopped, asked if I was okay (I was visibly shaken), offered me a ride or to call and report the driver, and one even got out of her car and gave me a hug. “I thought that was it,” she said. On another occasion, I called and reported the driver as a suspected DUI after he brazenly told me, “I’ve hit a cyclist once, I don’t want to do it again!” through glassy, blood-shot eyes in rush hour traffic.
My response to you does not make me a pacifist, nor does it make your actions acceptable. In fact, I circled back through my neighborhood, fuming, on a mission to find that motorcycle cop and report your egregious behavior. In the approximately seven minutes it took for me to locate him, I’d composed myself a bit and reason began to seep back into my veins. You must be having one hell of a day, I decided.
The discussion with one of BPD’s friendly officers helped to calm me, and also provided me with a little insight into the circumstances leading up to our meeting. Having traveled from out of state for a specialty doctor’s appointment, being in unfamiliar surroundings compounded by the fact that the hospital streets are chaotic, blocked and overrun with several other disoriented drivers would understandably put anyone on-edge.
Believe me, I was not trying to make your day worse. But my actions were out of self-preservation as a law-abiding cyclist.
In these tense situations neither party gets a chance to rationalize their actions. For my own satisfaction, I’d like to explain why I chose to respond to you the way I did.
It will stay with you.
By not spewing foul language through your car window, I hope I diffused some of the heat that was emanating from it. Perhaps receiving a controlled, non-defensive response from an anonymous cyclist served to smooth the incident into a wisp of a memory rather than a defining moment in your terrible day.
It will stay with me.
I will confess: I’ve been guilty of flying the bird, shaking my fist, yelling at drivers and otherwise making a belligerent ass of myself after similarly enraging interactions on the road. Most of these reactions have been out of raw fear for my life. But in none of those situations have I felt better for the aggressive behavior. More often than not, it follows me for the rest of my ride (even the rest of my day) like a rueful shadow of hostility.
My actions speak for an entire population.
If I launch into a tirade, it fulfills an angry driver’s belief that cyclists are entitled, contentious troublemakers. I’d rather leave the driver with a different impression: not all cyclists are out to ruin your day. And not all cyclists ride with a chip on their shoulder. Furthermore, in this case I was wearing a kit plastered with a local bike shop’s logo, among others. My actions represent them as well.
We are all human beings.
We often hear about “bikes vs. cars.” When are we going to start referring to these squabbles as they truly are: “humans vs. humans?” Empathy is a skill that I’ve honed through my work as a dietitian. As such, I’ve found myself applying it to all areas of my life, many times with favorable results. Expressing some understanding of your situation- good or bad- can work wonders in creating a neutral space between us, where shouting is unnecessary in order to be heard. We can actually have a conversation.
I hope that your day improved after we met. Sincerely. And I hope that by calmly absorbing your angry outburst, I was the final recipient of your disgruntlement. True, cyclists can just as easily express rage on the road, but not all of us are out to ruin your day. And while I’ll do my best to keep my emotional reactions under wraps, please remember that your vehicle can do far worse damage to any cyclist than their middle finger or tongue-lashing can do to you.