I came to love the Disney – Pixar film Cars while watching it [many times over] with my daughter. Smiling front grills, fun personalities, happy cars doing the right thing: it’s a beautiful thing. I sometimes find myself wishing I’d see more Disney-esque smiling front grills out on real-world roads.
In the past month I’ve had four incidents of over-the-top hostility from drivers directed at me the cyclist. In one instance a driver going in the opposite direction slowed down, leaned on her horn for a good 5 seconds and flipped me off while shouting obscenities. Two days earlier, the shoulder was too narrow for me to ride to the right of the white line. A car full of twenty-something kids showed their displeasure at having to slow down because of oncoming traffic: yelling obscenities and tossing garbage out the window in our general direction. All the while I was part of a press of unfriendly traffic, knowing with grave certainty that I had the most to lose if someone doesn’t want to play nice. A 17 lb bicycle is no match.
I’ve learned to recognize two kinds of drivers. One kind of driver simply doesn’t believe bikes should be on the road. The other wants to treat us as pedestrians – rather than as a different kind of vehicle. Both extremes are dangerous. On the one hand, some have tried to run me off the road or flatly ignore my existence. On the other hand, I sometimes encounter drivers who think they should stop immediately to give the cyclist the right of way, causing a line of panic stops behind them.
According to bicyclinginfo.org 677 cyclists were struck and killed by motor vehicles in 2011. There were 38,000 cyclist injuries during the same year. This is an 18% reduction from 1995, and many believe this is due to increased use of helmets, as well as improved helmet design. During this time there’s also been numerous education initiatives and the advent of SHARE THE ROAD signs across the country.
It’s painfully obvious that cyclists cannot control driver attitudes – but we can take responsibility to be safe and predictable when riding in traffic. One of my pet peeves is the unsafe rider behavior that seems to manifest itself in organized rides. Drivers are vexed by groups riding three or four abreast, blowing through stop lights, and failing to signal their intentions. In a manner of speaking, you can’t blame motorists for getting upset.
I believe there’s much that cyclists can do to help improve safety. We need to adopt a proactive attitude that includes showing respect to drivers. This includes everything from thank you waves to clearly signaling where we’re going. Responding in kind to rude drivers [as tempting as it is] escalates a conflict that we can’t win – if only because we’re not traveling in a vehicle equipped with air bags. In the encounters I described above, I simply took a deep breath, looked down and concentrated on pedaling.
The more miles I log [3541 thus far in 2013] the more acutely aware I become that the likelihood of injury on the road increases. The one factor within my control is continuing to work toward becoming a consistent and predictable rider. This our edge of safety.