Monday, November 21, 2011

Responding to Ignorance on the Road - A Different Approach

Written by Dana Lieberman

If you have spent any amount of time riding on public roads as a cyclist, you have probably been yelled at, called names, cut off and generally been abused by a small portion of the driving population. Spending any amount of time on bicycling bulletin boards, Facebook Cycling pages, and other online cycling forums will reveal that this is not an uncommon issue. Online, posts like these tend to get people riled up, with posters stating how they handle these situations, how they might handle the situations if concealed weapons were legal in their state, etc. Quite frankly, this battle between auto driver and cyclist has become pandemic as cycling continues to become a more popular mode of transportation. States, counties and cities are legislating solutions, but I think we all have to take some personal responsibility for the ways we interact with each other.

I used to spend a lot of time yelling back at drivers, pounding on cars and generally being as aggressive as I perceived them to be. A couple years ago, however, that changed. I was out riding with a friend on an early Sunday morning and a car passed us too close while honking. We caught up to the car and I started yelling and beating on his car. I unintentionally dented it. He took off and so did we.

15 miles further into the ride, as we were pulling into a Starbucks for a snack, the same car pulls in with a police officer behind him. We each explained our sides of the story. The officer gave me a choice...I could agree to pay for the damages to the vehicle or he could haul me off to the police station for assault on a deadly weapon. I was quite embarrassed by my behavior, agreed to pay for damages, we both apologized and went our separate ways. You see, we are allowed to yell and scream our heads off, but the moment it gets physical, it is assault.

I really reflected on this episode for some time. It made me think about how I managed my anger and how I responded to others' perceived anger. While it cost me my pride and a few hundred dollars, this episode was rather an epiphany for me...I didn't have to let the behavior of others on the road dictate my behavior. I now have a new strategy for handling obnoxious drivers...it is one that keeps my blood pressure under control and allows me to turn a volatile situation into an educational one.

(I will start by saying that I take a very proactive approach to cycling as prescribed by the League of American Bicyclists) The first thing I had to realize was that the vast majority of drivers in the Los Angeles are, in fact, paying attention to what they are doing and don't mean me any harm. This is obvious...thousands of cars go past me each week and I rarely have a close call, let alone a collision.

Second, I realized that most drivers don't have good vehicular proprioception. They just don't know how wide their cars are or where they are relative to other vehicles.

Finally, I understand that nobody ever won an argument by yelling at someone who didn't know they were in the argument. When you yell at a driver for driving too close, have they ever come back and said, "gee, I'm sorry about that, thanks for yelling and cursing at me to bring it to my attention"? I'm guessing no...they probably had no idea what you were yelling about...

So, I came up with a different strategy for managing these situations. My hope was that I could turn these into educational moments where both parties left feeling like the conversation was successful. Here's what I do:

It's generally pretty easy to tell the drivers that are oblivious rather than malicious. And inevitably, I will catch the oblivious drivers at the next light. As I am approaching them, I whip out my cell phone and pull up my photo album of my kids. The conversation starts with "Do you have children?"

Most nod yes.

"Me too". And I start showing them pictures of my wonderful daughters.

As I show them the pictures, I explain, "Since you have children, you probably understand that the most important thing for me is getting home to see them again. They way you just (insert reckless driving behavior here), I get concerned that I won't be able to do that. Could you please drive more carefully next time?"

The drivers typically respond with a sincere apology and something to the notion of they didn't realize how close they were, etc.

I end with something cordial like "Have a great week".

I leave feeling like I communicated my message to the driver in a way that was heard. Hopefully the driver leaves with a better awareness of their driving and cyclists rights on the road. It is more likely to be a win-win situation than if I would have yelled, cursed and dented their car! And I don't spend so much time angry...

2 comments:

WHCounselor said...

This is a fantastic post about dealing with anger!

Sokneath Prak said...

I absolutely love your article! Many fellow cyclists should heed your advice. I'll be reminding my students when school starts up again =) I hope you have a safe and joyous holiday riding season!