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Interacting with Drivers: A Two-Way Street

There are a lot of pixels devoted to dealing with obnoxious or scary drivers, which is mostly an indicator of how much time and energy cyclists spend thinking about the issue. I have yet to read a blog post that does not essentially say “take the high ground and don’t retaliate” (see Bikey Face’s pep talk – she apparently has self-control as refined as her sense of humor). This is good advice, but extremely hard to follow when one feels that her life has just been endangered by some idiot’s recklessness.

I want my interactions with drivers to reflect the way I ride: assertively defensive, not aggressive. I fantasize about being able to say things like, “Excuse me, but you could’ve killed me” or “You may not realize it, but under Minnesota State Law, you’re required to yield to me in this situation. Cutting cyclists off endangers everyone involved!”

Instead, I get half of a second to yell something or make a gesture as the vehicle speeds away. This never conveys the hoped-for sentiment, though If I’m stopped the arms out, palms-up body language does suggest something like “What the heck are you doing?” which is pretty close.

The other gesture at my disposal may convey how I feel but does NOT send the appropriate message. I also dislike the fear that sets in when I resort to it and then worry that I just flipped off one of the statistically significant number of drivers who experience road rage. I firmly believe in standing up for yourself in a non-aggressive, non-violent manner, so until someone invents a universally-understood hand gesture that means, “excuse me, please don’t drive like that” I’m looking for alternatives.

Let’s Go Ride a Bike wrote about summer being “jerk season,” or the time of year when she actually hears the things drivers yell out of car windows at her. While Minneapolis is a great place to ride, this happens occasionally, and it makes me mad, too. The driver LGRAB describes falls firmly into the psychotic, road-rage possessed, do-not-engage-under-any-circumstances category, but for the sane people on the road, I think summer is a unique opportunity.

Rolled down car windows are a two-way street. They let drivers hear me yelling when they don’t see me, despite my neon green grip tape and a hot pink riding jacket. They have also provided me with the opportunity to engage drivers with simple statements.

Earlier this week a car started pulling out from the curb as I was rapidly approaching in the bike lane next to it. I yelled and the car stopped. Two hundred yards later, we were at the same red light, and I had a chance to say to the driver, through his open window, “You really scared me! Please check for cyclists before pulling away from the curb.” To which the response was profuse apology from the driver and his passenger.

In a similar situation last summer, I thought I was taking the (right hand) lane while stopped at a stop light on a busy street. The driver behind me thought there was enough room to create her own right turn lane next to me, came up fast, and made a hard stop less than a foot away from my right elbow. Her rolled down window let me say, “Wow, you’re really close to me! Did you know that Minnesota law requires three feet of clearance?” This one got a less enthusiastic, mumbled apology, but I still got a driver to apologize to me!

I don’t like being angry. I’m working on controlling my reaction to bad behavior but still firmly standing up for my rights (a friend likes to say “you loose the rights you don’t use” and I see this in action on the streets daily). For now I’m loving the rare chances to have civilized exchanges with drivers via rolled-down windows. Come fall I might just have to get some of these magnets and start practicing my aim while on a moving bike.

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