How should you handle anger while riding?

The PI reports that a Redmond cyclist has been charged with a felony after an alleged road rage incident in October. Of course both Chad Olson, the bicyclist, and the Volvo driver have differing accounts of what happened.

From the P.I.:

The driver told police he honked his horn after the cyclist — since identified as Olson — “cut (him) off” by swerving into the roadway from the bicycle lane, a Redmond officer told the court.

Olson then chased after the car, pulling up beside the driver-side door when the car stopped for a red light, the officer continued. Olson then spit on the car window, struck the side mirror and circled around the car.

As the driver attempted to pull away, the cyclist threw his bicycle at the side of the car, the officer told the court.

An hour after the incident, Olson arrived at the Redmond Police Department hoping to report a road rage incident.

“Chad (Olson) stated his bike hit (the driver’s) vehicle while he was attempting to avoid being hit by the vehicle,” the Redmond officer told the court. “He stated any damage that occurred was based on his actions of self defense. …

“He did admit that he hit the driver side mirror out of anger.”

The charges have amounted to a felony because repairs are estimated at $5,700.

Too many details are missing from the story to really be able to tell what happened or for me or anyone else to place blame. For example, it was either a golden Volvo or there was more car damage than we know about. I can’t imagine what one could do to a Volvo with a single toss of a bike that would add up to over $5,000 (the point where property damage becomes a felony). And it says he rode away from the scene, so clearly he didn’t smash up the bike too badly in the process.

Second, what exactly happened to spur the incident is completely unclear. Did the cyclist feel threatened by the driver like he claims? We don’t know yet.

I can see a story like this getting out of hand in the public view, and I want to remind everyone (people who want to defend the cyclist and those who want to blame him) that we really don’t have a clear view of what happened.

It is, however, useful to discuss how to best handle a situation in which you feel endangered or threatened in some way by a vehicle in general (again, we don’t know what happened in this particular incident). I know there have been a couple times when I was glad my u-lock was in my backpack and hard to reach. When someone passes within inches of your handlebars, your body kicks into a kind of survival, adrenaline-pumping mode where it is very easy for anger to overpower your better senses. After all, someone almost killed you. It is completely legitimate to be angry at someone who almost kills you. The question is, what do you do about it?

1. Just report it and let it go?

By default, it’s probably best for your safety to just let it go and do what you can to report the incident. If you know you have a tendency to lose it, you should make even more of an effort to let it go. Get the license plate, report the incident to BikeWise and the police. Though Seattle Police may not do much about an “almost hit me” report, it’s good to have it on the record with as much vehicle and suspect info as you can get (if the suspect is still in the area, call 911, if they are long gone, call 206-625-5011). Some people have even started wearing helmet cameras to capture these incidents. Remember, it is illegal for a vehicle to pass you within a “reasonably safe” distance.

2. Try to teach the driver a lesson?

“But if I just let it go, the driver is going to go on and not realize the trauma they are causing to people riding bikes!” I have had a couple experiences where I have been able to talk to the driver at a stoplight and explain that I felt s/he endangered me and make a calm-as-possible request for more space next time. You will probably not get a good response on the spot (they range from ignoring you to telling you to screw off and ride on the sidewalk). But at least the driver knows they scared someone and has the opportunity to change their behavior. Often times, people don’t realize what they did. They may be defensive when put on the spot, but most people will continue to think about the incident after they take off in a puff of toxic exhaust after the light changes.

However, your safety needs to be your number one priority. Engaging in conversation with someone in a car is potentially risky. Their vehicle is a deadly weapon, after all.

3. Put them in their place?

“This driver just stomped on my rights and threatened my life. There is no way I am going to let them get away with that.” I’ll admit, I have tried this strategy, too. Luckily, I have never had it backfire too badly. Mostly, the driver and I just yelled at each other, threw around some curse words and went our separate ways totally riled up and steaming. In an article published today, a Melbourne cyclist explains what happened when he got buzzed and lost it. After getting into a yelling match, the driver circled around and tried to buzz him a couple more times.

So perhaps trying to talk with a driver at all is a bad idea. But that just seems so defeatist…

4. Put your taillight between your legs and sulk away?

I reject this as a reasonable option. You have to be proud about being a cyclist. It’s demeaning to have someone intimidate you with overwhelming physical force. It is wrong. You must refuse to be a victim and learn to recognize how that victimization manifests inside yourself. I, for example, have huffed and puffed all the way home, replaying the incident in my head over and over, imaging myself smashing their window or videotaping it with my phone and sending it to the police and having them arrest the guy and take away his license forever. Meanwhile, any relatively close interaction with a motor vehicle that occurs along my way is ripe for me to irrationally blow up. This is dangerous and completely negates the relaxing joy that I love so much about biking. If I am not careful, I can feel depressed and angry for the rest of the day.

How do you keep from being a victim?

My answer is easy: I write Seattle Bike Blog. No matter how wronged I am on the road, I know that bike advocates are on the right track and that we are accomplishing great things for bike safety. I get to write about organizations that empower young people with the knowledge of safe biking and bicycle repair. I get to look at exciting new plans that will make our roads safer. I get to read about people finding a bike at a garage sale for $30 and taking to two wheels, never looking back. Instead of dwelling on the negative experiences I have, I get to be positive. This is a big reason why I started the blog in the first place, and it works for me.

How do you handle a negative or threatening interaction on the roads? How do you remain proud and confident after close calls with aggressive or negligent drivers?

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12 Responses to How should you handle anger while riding?

  1. Brian says:

    After trying or flirting with each of these options, I put myself in the “striving to just let it go” camp. I have a tendency to have strong adrenaline-fueled reactions to getting buzzed (or worse) by cars. These reactions are probably induced by a background feeling of self-righteousness while cycling amidst speeding SOV’s. I’m working on chilling out and on letting go of the self-righteousness. My reasons are this:
    First, you can’t educate a driver in a heated on-the-street interaction. To learn, someone needs to be interested in learning and aware that there is something to learn. Maybe others are different, but I’m not at my best and most coherent after getting buzzed and sprinting to “educate” them at the next stop light (done that). The driver is usually oblivious to his infraction, and all he sees and hears is a breathless, condescending screech full of “trying to kill me” histrionics. Maybe he was having a moment of distraction, or doesn’t understand the effect and risk of his passing distance, or whatever — the reason is generally not malevolent. So an angry response is perceived as disproportionate to the infraction. So, on education, broad, public awareness campaigns are far more effective at raising consciousness than my poorly scripted interaction with a single driver in the middle of the street when we both have places to go and traffic looming behind us. Stated differently — even if you can manage to express yourself calmly and kindly, talking to a single driver is basically pointless if your goal is having a more bike-conscious population.
    Second, my rage and self-righteousness distracts me from the pleasures of riding (and probably from watching out for other hazards). I can’t count the number of times that I’ve run through imaginary scenarios all the way home or to work without paying enough attention to what I’m doing or appreciating the pleasure of riding. There’s a great zen parable about not carrying it with you that I won’t repeat here. I try to be mindful of that.
    Maybe my position will be regarded as playing the victim. But it’s not. When we’re driving our cars, we all suffer countless little infractions and shrug them off with maybe a grunted “idiot.” But then we let them go. Where we’re on bikes, we’re less protected from the potential harms of these infractions, but I don’t think that means we should react much differently. People, drivers and cyclists alike, make careless decisions. Channel your irritation into something more productive than sprinting to catch someone and hurling your bike at his car.

  2. Chris Taylor says:

    I have an extremely loud pressurized-air horn on my bike, and a good loud honk is usually enough for me to vent my frustration/anger, and to make the driver aware of what they’ve done. At 115 dB, I think it’s louder than a car horn. (Delta Airzound Bike Horn on Amazon.com)

  3. Chris says:

    Great post! You answered the question I posed on my own blog today: http://jerseyguys.blogspot.com/2011/02/dodging-minivans.html

    I really like the statement: “It is completely legitimate to be angry at someone who almost kills you.” I totally agree and feel as if you can address issues of anger while keeping your cool in this context that some good dialogue might be generated.

  4. Kelli says:

    Thank you for posting this Tom. There have been several times where I have screamed at cars and gotten in to pretty pointless arguments with drivers. I would have to agree that letting a lot of the anger go and using it to help fuel advocacy is a great way to use anger to create positive social change.

    After one particularly scary “almost hit me” incident I took a moment to hop off my bicycle and walk for a few moment. I checked in with my breath and tried to calm down. When I ride all shook up with anger I notice that I become less aware to how I am riding, but if I give myself a few moments to chill out I can pedal on consciously.

    “When angry, count four. When very angry, swear.”
    — Mark Twain

  5. Tim K. says:

    All good comments.

    I’ve done the “report it” route with the SPD. The dispatcher took it seriously and said someone would respond. But then officer who came out to take a report actually got angry at me for wasting his time and said I shouldn’t be blocking the road (in-city, residental, non-arterial street!).

    Another time I got clipped by the mirror of a Yukon. Driver was on the phone. Police weren’t interested at all so I tweeted the incident and car info instead. I doubt the driver ever heard about it, but at least I got some support from my peeps!

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  7. Leif says:

    And this is the problem. I think if the police took these things seriously and treated cyclists with the same respect when an incident occurs as they treated other road users I would be more apt to follow official routes. As it is, I feel a vigilante need to exact justice on drivers who are aggressive towards cyclists because anytime the cops show up it is either the cyclists fault or ruled “an accident.”

    I seriously doubt this dude threw his bike at a car. That doesn’t seem like something most cyclists would do. Hit the car, spit on the car, u-locked the mofo; I can see all of those outcomes. I just can’t imagine myself picking up my beloved bike and hurtling it at a car. Maybe that dude is crazy though.

  8. Joe says:

    I hate, hate, hate these interactions. Being assaulted by aggressive drivers pretty much ruins cycling for me; after each particularly bad incident, I find myself driving places that I would normally ride to. After I get back on the bike a few days later, I often detour to stay away from poorly designed streets where these assaults tend to happen.

    The reality is that cyclists may have de jure rights, but cyclists do not have de facto rights. And we won’t have de facto rights as long as drivers know that if we annoy them then they can kill us, with no more risk to themselves than a slap on the wrist and a bit of scratched paint.

    So count me in the “taillight between my legs” camp. I’d rather continue to cycle in a meek and victimlike manner, than try to assert rights that I do not have and end up angry, depressed, and driving everywhere.

    Sorry to be such a bummer.

    On the bright side, a driver right-hooked me today, and after slamming on my brakes I noticed that somebody had scratched “Bitch” into her right rear window. I’m not above a little schadenfreude.

    • Tom Fucoloro says:

      Thanks for your honesty, Joe. There are a lot of others like you out there. I would suggest that the act of finding a comfortable route need not be an admission of defeat. I love experimenting with routes until I find the one that is the most comfortable/fun/safe/fast. I will almost always choose a neighborhood route that avoids streets where negative interactions with drivers are more likely.

      In some ways, it almost feels like being a kid. There were always these shortcuts and routes that only kids knew about. By forging a path through the city that is unique to you, it’s almost like making the city your own. This can be an empowering experience. If I can make my own route instead of getting in yet another fight with a driver on [insert name of 4-lane street here], I will do that about 90 percent of the time. I really only ride big mean streets if I am in a hurry, especially at rush hour.

      That’s just my style though. It’s important to work to redesign all our streets to make them safe for people walking and biking. There are so few streets in Seattle that need to be 4 lanes of general traffic flow, yet we still have so many…

  9. AJL says:

    As a woman who cycles, I think that some drivers do cut me a little more slack. Sometimes if someone tries yelling at me and I say something back and they realize, “Hey, it’s a girl!” they back off. But not often.

    I am of the judge the situation then react camp. Sometimes if a driver has made a drastic bad decision (like deciding to run thier red light after not liking how long it took to turn green – right in front of me) and I catch up to them at the next red light, I’ll say something. Usually they yell back or give me the finger. But I feel in those cases that they shouldn’t expect to get away with no one saying anything. That’s playing right into the safety of the enclosed vehicle/isolation camp.

    If the driver is obviously aggressive – I will always let it go, usually with a shake of my head and a “thanks!” called out after them.

    I have learned not to swear, to use logic, to try not to raise my voice. Just this past week someone pulled out from a stop sign in front of my while I was going about 30 mph. I barely avoided getting t-boned by her. I was yelling my head off for her to stop. She did stop. We actually had a conversation and she apologized and seemed sincere. I told her she has to not only look out for cars but all road users (she likely wouldn’t have even seen a pedestrian crossing). Maybe she learned something, that’s the best hope I can have.

    One driver at a time – I do report plates and particularly dangerous intersections to SDP via their on-line reporting tool. I’ve never, knock on wood, had to call 911 on my behalf. I talk with friends and co-workers about driving around cyclists. I offer to ride with new riders. Patience and understanding has got me through a lot of situations and lets me still commute with pleasure.

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