There is a scene in the movie Roadhouse where the main character is telling the bar staff at a rather rough bar to just “be nice.” If you haven’t seen it – it is a classic. Go watch it. If you have, stop rolling your eyes at me…
Anyhow, it struck me today how great the advice from this scene is for all of us bicycle commuters out there. There is far to much confrontational thinking where none is needed. Sometimes it is motorists thinking we are complete asses, and sometimes it is us assuming motorists are complete asses just out to kill us. But I had three separate incidents in the past two days that have turned me back on to the idea of “just being nice.”
Case in point:
I was riding home near AT&T park yesterday. There was a ton of traffic along The Embarcadero and King St – always a sign that there is an SF Giant’s game or other major activity at AT&T park. This inevitably raises the stress level of the commute. Gridlocked intersections where I need to figure out what side of the car to pass on to get through it going straight. Trying to safely navigate around hard-working pedicab drivers that are stuck dragging a family of 5 through a bike lane barely wider than their cabs. And the endless line of game-goers too anxious to jump out of their cars to look in their rear view mirrors to see if someone is in the bike lane. A typical commute…
As I got past the ballpark I turned along the water to the back side of a large parking lot – which takes me off of the much busier 3rd street. Then suddenly – there is a car in front of me. Blasting out from the parking lot in front of me, turning right to follow my direction of travel. Brakes are squeezed. Tires skid. The driver accelerates to take off. Adrenalin is pumping… I’m flat pissed…
I have momentary fantasies of sprinting up along side him, leaning in his passenger side window and instructing him on the damage he could of caused – punctuated by a long line of expletives for emphasis. But he is away in traffic, and I start to calm down. I reply the situation in my head. More rational thoughts form.
First, I remember that I was in fact right next to a semi-truck and trailer that had parked parallel to the bike lane, and the guy in the car was pulling out of the road in front of the semi. There was absolutely no way he could have seen me – his view blocked by the parked truck. So what did he do? The same thing any driver would do (myself included) in that situation – inch forward until he had a clear view. Unfortunately inching forward to see the road also meant that the entire front half of his car was now in the bike lane – where I was traveling at about 20 MPH. While I took him speeding away as an aggressive move initially, I now realized that it was a very normal action – probably out of fear. I can imagine he was thinking something along the lines of “Oh shit… I pulled out in front of this guy. I need to get out of the way” and slammed his foot down on the gas pedal.
Now as fate would have it, about a half mile up the road there was a huge backup of cars waiting on construction. I was going to go right past this guy as he sat in line. As I approached I could already see him watching in his rear-view mirror.
Wouldn’t you know it – as soon as I was close he was leaning across the driver’s seat, hand outstretched in a wave. I slowed a bit as I passed and heard “Sorry – I just didn’t see you around the truck!” I waved back. “No worries! At least I’m beating you past all this traffic!” Mutual laughs and we both went on our ways.
I could have cussed the living hell out of the guy, told him all about how I could have been killed – but what would that have gained? Better safety for other riders?
It is a fact of human psychology that people are much less likely to consider your points – even valid ones – if expressed in a confrontational way. Had I cussed him out all he would have likely remembered is how much of an ass hole I was – and therefore further reinforced the impression that all cyclists are assholes all the time. Instead, maybe next time he is inching out into traffic where he can’t see (which happens a ton in the city) the idea that a cyclist might be there too is something he will consider. And if nothing else… I didn’t give him another reason to hate cyclists.
There have actually been two other incidents of a similar nature for me recently – both of which unfolded in basically the same way. Times where I could have very easily flown off the handle, but instead all parties ended the encounter in a friendly way. And one of them happened to involve a guy that looked a hell of a lot like Santa Clause – so I’m thinking Christmas will be good this year.
As I was preparing to write this post I read another blog that summed it all up pretty nicely. James L. Pocrass, Esq. wrote an article for Biking in LA that I think drives to the heart of this. In it he states:
Remember, no one goes out to kill someone with their car (okay, almost no one), but most drivers are angry because they’re scared. No one taught them how to share the road. No one taught them how to drive sharing the road with a cyclist. You can say that’s not your problem, but the truth is, it’s everybody’s problem.
There are a lot of us that believe cycling is actually a safe, healthy activity that also just happens to be a whole hell of a lot of fun. So save the anger for your political discussions of Facebook. I don’t think that constant helmet wearing or carefully observing each and every traffic law are the ways to improve the general population’s impression of cycling (as Mr Pocrass posits in his article). But just being nice can go a long, long way.