A road-rager goes to jail, but what does it mean for us?
I’m sure you already know, Christopher T. Thompson got 5 years in prison for assaulting 2 cyclists. I’d like to point you to this article by Bob Mionske in yesterday’s LA Times. Saith Mr. Mionske:
There is no question that cyclists are almost always treated unfairly in the halls of a seemingly indifferent justice system, and for once, cyclists feel that the violent abuse they are regularly subjected to has been taken seriously. For that, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office is to be commended.
But this was a stand-alone case that does not represent some sort of sea change in the way that vigilante violence against law-abiding cyclists is handled. We should remember that it took more than one assault with his weapon of choice before Thompson was sent to jail.
I have to agree with him. In all the celebration for this conviction, the reality nags at my gut. There was a truckload of evidence against this guy, he was easy to convict. Mionske goes on to say:
…drivers who enforce some imaginary version of the vehicle code by assaulting law-abiding cyclists tend to do so repeatedly; for this reason, I advise cyclists to report these incidents to police. A driver with a reported history of violent assaults will be less likely to get away with claiming, as Thompson did, that it was all just “an unfortunate accident.” Real change will happen when law enforcement begins to take each report seriously, rather than waiting until serious injuries (or worse) have been inflicted.
I suspect the repeated assault scenario is common for club cyclists on regular routes. For example, I would not be surprised if the same few drivers are buzzing and tossing objects at cyclists in the Clermont area every chance they get. My experiences out there suggest the behavior is driven by seething anger/hate rather than momentary frustration. A transportation cyclist who uses the same route at the same time every day might possibly encounter the same hostile driver repeatedly, as well. Steve A has. That could be driven by an ideological anti-cyclist bias, or simply an immature power trip. Its usually clear that the behavior is calculated, not a response to any actual or perceived impact the cyclist could have had on the perpetrator.
But then there are also drivers who make threatening maneuvers in the heat of frustration, because they perceive that the cyclist is interfering with their divinely-ordained priority on the road. We can’t pin a pattern of behavior to these individual drivers, but they are, collectively, a menace to the community.
A personal experience
This is probably the worst frustrated-driver incident I’ve experienced. LisaB and I encountered this one on Lakemont & Lake Howell a couple years ago. He got trapped behind us because a left-turning car blocked his ability to pass before the road split off to a 2-lane, then the lane was narrow, there’s a curve and the opposing lane was full of traffic. His response was to lay on the horn from the point where we passed the left-turning car until the oncoming lane cleared and he was able to pass. When he first started with the horn, I looked back and signaled for him to please be patient. After the horn continued for 30 seconds or so, I suffered an Irish Temper Containment Breech and the bad finger shot forth to display its defiance. When the oncoming traffic cleared, we moved to the right tire track and waved him around. He passed too close, then hit his brakes. Fortunately, both of us were able to avoid hitting him. He then peeled out and sped another 1,500ft to the back of the traffic jam (of CARS, which back up from the traffic light at Howell Branch road every single day at that time). At that point we all sat in the traffic jam queue for a good 5 minutes (10 times the amount of time he was “delayed” in passing us).
As luck would have it, I had packed my cell phone in my trunk because I thought it was going to rain. I tried to memorize his plate number (specifically by saying it over and over again, loudly). What we should have done is stop and call the police right then, but the adrenaline made me stupid (and I was feeling ashamed for escalating it by flipping him off). At the Howell Branch traffic light, after he had turned right and gone on his way, another motorist asked us for directions. Giving her directions pretty much erased the license plate number from my mind.
Hurting the community
Repeat offenders driven by hate are the most dangerous to individual cyclists, because as they become emboldened they really do have the capacity and intent to hurt people. The random hotheads tend to make threatening gestures without the intent to physically harm a cyclist, but the social repercussions of their behavior impact civility, safety and quality of life for the whole community. The mere possibility of facing that kind of behavior keeps many cyclists from leaving the sidewalk, thus greatly increasing their danger of being hit unintentionally. And it keeps some people from attempting to use bikes for transportation at all, even though they may want to. It only takes a tiny number of terrorists to impact the livability of a community. Hello, community leaders — livability is inextricably linked to economic sustainability, attracting good employers and increasing real estate values.
Is there a solution?
I think this is an area where culture change must be aided by community leadership and law enforcement engagement. But how we engage them is the big question. As many of us have experienced, most PDs respond with indifference when cyclists report incidents of intimidation. If they didn’t see it, they can’t do anything about it, so they don’t want to waste time taking a report.
In an email discussion among FBA advisory board members, an idea emerged…
Currently, the Florida Bicycle Association is building an education toolkit for law enforcement. This project is a partnership between educators/advocates and law enforcement leadership who understand the issues we face and the benefits to safe, civil roads for all users.
Through this program, there could be an opportunity to collect data and evidence on harassment by encouraging cyclists to run video (especially in hotspot areas) and record incidents and locations. If FBA were able to collect this data, it would give us some compelling evidence to show law enforcement and community leaders the reality of the problem. Perhaps that could lead to stiffer penalties for hostile behavior as well as to a greater commitment by law enforcement for follow up on reports.
So here’s my question for you
If there was a place to report these incidents and it could help make a difference, would you be willing to strap an inexpensive camera to your bike to help document abuse? There is a small time commitment involved in writing down details and uploading video clips. And it’s a hassle sometimes, when all you want to do is go for a ride or get from point A to point B.
And one more question. If you are already running video on the bike, would you leave a comment about the type of camera you’re using and what you like/don’t like about it? I plan to prepare a list of camera options for an article George is writing for the FBA messenger.
I promise a happier topic next time. This harassment stuff is stuck in my craw because I’ve had more a-hole encounters in the last 2 months than the entire last 2 years.