Friday, December 6, 2013

Share the Road?

I remember an incident that happened a number of years ago on a group ride. We were stopped at a light, standing at the right side of the road waiting for the signal to change to green. Just then, a lady wanting to turn right drove over onto the shoulder to slip past the stopped cars (not legal by the way, at least not in Ohio) and hit one of my riding friends, knocking him down. She stopped and got out of her car, approached my friend (who at this point was on the ground holding what turned out to be a broken collarbone) and proceeded to scream at him "You're supposed to SHARE the road!"


After more than three decades of cycling as an adult -- the vast majority of it on the road -- I have come to the conclusion that many (most?) drivers have no comprehension of what it means to "Share the Road." Oh, they're all familiar with the slogan and recognize the signs, but many of them seem to be under the impression the signs are an admonition to cyclists, meaning something like "You, BIKER, share the road!"

For many drivers in their cars, the perception is if you're on a bike, just by virtue of being on the road at all -- as opposed to riding on the shoulder or the sidewalk -- you are NOT sharing the road.

During my morning bicycling commute, I have an angry and infuriating driver that I encounter again and again. I leave for work very early -- about 6 a.m. -- and although I ride on one of the main routes out of the city, at that early hour there is almost no traffic. But this lady will come up, wait until she's right behind me, and blast her horn. Then she passes me, laying on the horn the whole way past. Startles the hell out of me every time. I usually yell out at her and give an angry gesture, but there's not much else I can do. I'd like to be able to get her license plate, but it's actually very difficult, even with my glasses, to see a license plate number that's moving away from me at 35 mph in the dark. I also have few, if any, illusions that the police would do anything whatsoever. But she does it every time she sees me. If I could ever catch her, at a stoplight for instance, I'd give her a piece of my mind -- but the lights never seem to work in my favor.

The thing is, there's no reason for the lady's reaction. There is no traffic. She has the whole road with multiple lanes to get past. Passing me doesn't slow her down for a second. Not even a fraction of one. Her obnoxious horn is her way of telling me she doesn't think I have any right to be there. It's intimidation. A threat. Share the road? Forget that. As far as she's concerned, I shouldn't be on the road at all.

I should also point out that when I commute by bike, I am highly visible, well-lit, and I observe the laws. I stop for lights and signs. I stay to the right when I can, but I also don't hesitate to "take the lane" when necessary.

One hears a lot from motorists who complain about "scofflaw cyclists" who disobey the traffic laws and then get indignant and scream profanity at any driver who doesn't respect them. I know those riders exist. I see them occasionally. But I believe they are more the product of popular narrative and prejudice than of objective and factual observation. What I mean is, they fit a preconceived stereotype that drivers have of cyclists which then perpetuates itself. Every time they see someone on a bike running through a light, those drivers notice it, and it reinforces their prejudice, even though they may have encountered many more cyclists riding with respect for the law. It's the way our brain works. Our brains like patterns and predictability, even when those patterns don't actually exist. Once our brains perceive (or construct) a pattern, they are more likely to notice anything that fits, while having the uncanny ability to completely ignore anything that doesn't.

Not only that, but these same drivers have the ability to somehow block out the far greater number of motorists who break the law on a daily basis. Unless one never leaves the house or spends their life in isolation, who honestly can say they don't see at least several cars every day blow through lights or roll through stop signs? Most people probably see more cars accelerating through intersections as the lights are changing from yellow to red (illegal!) in a single day than they encounter bicyclists on the road (law abiding or otherwise) in a full week. Even though the car that runs the light is a far greater threat to others than a cyclist who does the same, people can dismiss those lawbreakers in the cars easily because they themselves identify with the drivers, while they view cyclists as something "other."

Another thing about supposed "scofflaw cyclists" is that I suspect that a lot of what motorists perceive as "lawbreaking" is actually just cyclists who are versed in the law and actually exercising their rights within the law. Look at "taking the lane," for instance. I take the lane when approaching some intersections, when preparing for a left turn, when approaching roundabouts -- any time I am concerned that a passing motorist (or one attempting to pass) can put me in jeopardy. But I guarantee that at least some of the drivers who get behind me are cursing me, even if they don't blast their horns at me. If they get the chance to complain to someone about it later, they'll talk about some "crazy stupid biker" riding down the middle of the road, not letting the driver get past.

As I said, I know there are riders who break the law. Who run lights and signs. Who jump from the roadway to the sidewalk and back again to get an edge on the traffic. Lots of things. I've talked with some who argue that the laws were made for cars, not bikes, and that it's somehow "safer" to break them. I don't buy that. In all my years of riding and all the miles I spend commuting, I can't really think of too many situations where I'm safer bending or breaking the law than following it. My attitude is respect the law and exercise your rights under it. The way I see it, we lose the high ground when we start inventing our own laws the same way a lot of drivers do, and it ends up hurting us.

It's absolutely true that in the face of the prejudice against us cyclists, many motorists will likely continue to dismiss us all as "scofflaws" even if most of us ride in accordance with the laws. Nevertheless, the next time some jerk of a motorist pulls some boneheaded move and injures a cyclist, I never want that driver to be able to attempt to justify their actions because they saw me running a red light. I don't ever want to be someone's excuse.

As for the horn-honking hag on my morning commute. She'd just better hope the lights don't finally work in my favor.


  1. I'm always surprised (and it's hard to be always surprised) when I catch up to an angry driver and (very calmly) ask them what the issue is - they often say that I'm endangering myself. That's why they are angry. I had a couple in a car gesture to me angrily at a stoplight about a month ago to say that my bicycling (in a marked bike lane, fully legal) was dangerous - that I could "fall down." It's having these just motives that makes these people dangerous. They will punish you physically for not being safer. Separately, just want to remind you that cars are lethal weapons and antagonizing someone in control of a lethal weapon, especially when you don't have one, is a terrible idea, especially since I like this blog.

  2. An acquaintance commutes with a tiny spy camera facing the rear and another facing the front. Both are small and cheap, less than $50 total purchased on Ebay. Video quality isn't that great but sufficient to identify a car make and license plate.
    I've considered a sign reading "smile, live streaming video recording in progress".

    1. Thanks, Carlos -- that might be something I'll have to look into.

  3. In California "improper use of a warning device" is an infraction.
    Using a horn to express anger is simply wrong. It's like cussing at someone with a gun pointed at their head. If you get it on video and bring it to the police, they may be able to help you.

  4. You need your own airhorn - one of those hand held ones, inflated by a bike pump.
    And if everything works right, she'll have her windows down that day. *cackle*