Sometimes it’s insightful to look at a pattern of separate events and find a bigger picture. Sometimes it’s just convenient.
In his VeloNews column last week, Bob Mionske picked up the recent media hype on Road Wars.
To the casual observer, it may seem as though tempers have been rising along with the temperatures this summer, but as we’ll see, we know that the summer heat has nothing to do with it. Nevertheless, add higher gas prices, more bikes on the road, and — why not? — alcohol to the usual tension between motorists and cyclists, and you’ve got a potent cocktail for conflict.
He describes the horrifying Mandeville Canyon assault, three Portland road rage incidents, the infamous Seattle Critical Mass attack and another brutal assault in Utah.
When you group all these events together under the Bikes v. Cars banner, it could easily look like our civil order is breaking down into some sort of Mad Max anarchy. It’s very easy to throw a causation at that—more cyclists on the road + intolerant motorists—as the media has done in several high-profile articles. Mionske recognizes this:
For the media, and for the new cyclists who, lured by the combination of warm weather and high gas prices, are venturing out onto the road for the first time, these stories of road violence, one after the other, may indeed have seemed like “a new kind of road rage.”
And then says:
For seasoned cyclists, the stories were more an indication that the daily violence cyclists encounter had finally managed to capture the attention of the public-at-large.
OK, first of all, I don’t encounter daily violence. I don’t even encounter daily harassment. And as I’ve said before, cyclists are just as often victims of their own behavior as of motorist anger or ignorance. I appreciate Mionske’s pro-cyclist advocacy, but I think the “pattern” in the stories deserves a closer look.
First let’s look at the Portland incidents. All of these were escalated road rage. In 2 of the cases a motorist (who also happened to be a cyclist) yelled at a cyclist for violating the rules of the road. The cyclist then escalated the situation by picking a fight with the motorist. The third case involved a cyclist yelling at a motorist for speeding, the motorist turned out to be a psychopath and attacked the cyclist. I see nothing in these three incidents that reflects a “normal” experience of motorist disrespecting cyclist.
The Seattle Critical Mess was, well, pretty much what you expect from a mob whose purpose is protesting car culture. It definitely belongs in its own category.
That leaves the two brutal assault stories from California and Utah. Each involved an angry, sociopath motorist using his car as a weapon against recreational riders. That is the one pattern of motorist violence I have seen (and been a victim of). There is a small, but significant, percentage of impatient, selfish and volatile people out there. They need very little justification for their violence. A group of recreational cyclists is, to them, a perfect target. (And you can finish the thought yourself on how some recreational groups contribute to the animosity.)
But underlying the “bikes vs. cars” eruptions of violence, the larger questions remained unasked, and unanswered in the media: Why are cyclists the daily targets of road violence, and what can cyclists do to change that reality?
First, cyclists are not the ONLY targets of road violence. Aggressive driving, impatience and hostility are something I experience MORE in my car than I do on my bike. Frankly, if motorists did some of the crap to me on my bike that they do to other motorists, I wouldn’t ride. And if I had to judge the safety of cycling purely based on my experiences as a car driver, I might not ride. Lack of civility is an issue that the entire community needs to address on behalf of all road users, not just cyclists.
Second, while the descriptions of these events are compelling, zeroing in on a series of high-profile incidents obscures the thousands of hours of safe and pleasant riding most cyclists enjoy. Taken out of context, they have the disempowering effect of reinforcing the inhibiting danger mythologies. These articles all fail completely in educating their readers that some key understanding of traffic dynamics and a few simple skills can exponentially enhance a cyclist’s experience on the road.
I’m going to rephrase the second half of his question: “What can cyclists do to change THEIR reality?” If you’ve been reading this website, you know the answer.