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Posted by on Jun 23, 2012 in Uncategorized | 36 comments

Hostility in Winter Park


View to Winter Park Farmers Market in a larger map

This is my route to the Winter Park Farmers Market. It’s almost entirely residential streets, connected by the Mead Garden Trail. It’s not a route on which I would expect to be aggressively intimidated.

It was a typical ride in which I exchanged friendly greetings with several people, both on foot and in cars. That’s why I like using residential streets — human connectedness makes for higher quality trips. I crossed paths with our buddy Stix on the Mead Garden Trail, and a few blocks later I saw my good friend Julie biking on Minnesota Ave. Julie decided to join me and go to the farmers market.

When we got to the intersection of New York and Fairbanks, the light was red. We were first at the light. I stopped in the right half of the lane, Julie stopped to my left. We chatted as we waited for the light to change. A car pulled up behind us as we waited.

When the light changed, Julie dropped behind me. On the other side of the intersection, the lane is narrow and next to on-street parking. It’s not wide enough to ride two abreast with one rider out of the door zone and still give drivers behind a good view of the oncoming lane (in case they want to pass).

We were not even to the other side of Fairbanks when I could hear the engine winding up in the car behind us. One oncoming car cleared the intersection, then the road ahead was empty for 2 blocks. Engine revving, the passing car was suddenly right next to me — 6 inches away. This driver had all the room in the world to move over and give us plenty of passing clearance, but instead he was deliberately coming as close as he could, while accelerating hard.

There is absolutely no advantage to passing bicyclists between Fairbanks and Lyman on Saturday morning. The farmers market creates congestion, with cars pulling in and out of the loading area and pedestrians crossing New York, coming to and from their cars. Even though he was accelerating like he was on a speedway, I knew I could catch him, so I took off after him, pulling my iPhone out of my (tragically uncool but very utilitarian) fannypack.

Indeed I did catch him at New England as he was caught in a queue at that stop sign, waiting for groups of pedestrians to cross. I had to pass one car that had pulled between us, but I got a close shot of his license plate.

Then I pulled in front of him and tried to get a photo of him through the windshield. Too much tint and glare, but I did managed to get a photo of his hand, which was close to the windshield, displaying his I.Q.

With a photo of his license plate in hand, I pulled over and called the Winter Park Police Department (non-emergency number). I asked for a police officer to come take a complaint from me.

Officer Jim Whitman pulled up a few minutes later. A cyclist himself, he understood the situation and shared my frustration. As I know, and have explained here before, there is nothing official a police officer can do unless the crime was witnessed by a sworn officer. He lamented this fact and I assured him I understood the limitations of the law. I asked if it would be possible for him to at least pay a visit to this driver and explain that what he did was illegal. Having an officer show up at his door at least sends the message that the City of Winter Park and the Winter Park Police Department are concerned about civility and the safety of all road users. He took the license plate number and told me that if the guy lived in his jurisdiction he would do that.

It turns out Mr. Maserati lives right on the edge of Winter Park, so Officer Whitman agreed to pay him a visit. Of course we both know that drivers will lie, or make up stories about what the cyclist did to deserve being mistreated. I have the advantage of my position in the community. As co-founder of a national traffic cycling program which teaches courtesy and law-abiding behavior, and as vice-chair of the Metroplan PBAC, it’s extremely unlikely that I would waste my time or his on a made-up story.

This is the first time I have ever asked for a police officer to come talk to me about an incident of hostility. It is pretty rare, but I have been aggressively buzzed before and I have gotten the license plate. Once I called in a plate to Winter Springs PD and was shrugged off. Another time I was on my way to a presentation, so I didn’t have time to deal with it. Once I called OPD after I got to my office, but I hadn’t remembered the plate correctly. In most cases, I’m not able to get the license plate.

Most utility cyclists do not have the luxury of time to call in a license plate and wait for police to respond so they can be told there’s nothing that can be done. As a result the vast majority of intimidation goes unreported and bicyclists who experience it frequently feel increasingly helpless against the bullies. Even though these people make up a fraction of a percent of drivers encountered, the encounters have a significant emotional impact. People who ride in places where they are exposed to hundreds of drivers a day (one 6-mile trip down University at rush hour exposes a rider to over 200 same-direction motorists) may also encounter these sociopaths frequently enough to color their experience with bicycling.

Party because I live in the urban core, I don’t find harassment to be a continuous problem. It’s actually quite rare. If it was common, I would have stuck to riding a motorcycle. I know other people experience it a lot more often that I do. I wish we had some kind of recourse — something with teeth.

I’ve written about this subject a few times over the last 4 years. I’m not in favor of laws that single out user types for protection. I’m also not a fan of new laws where existing ones simply need to be enforced. What that guy did today is illegal. But the problem we have with enforcing the laws he broke is not that police are refusing to enforce the them, it’s that they can’t enforce them if they don’t witness the infraction.

I don’t know what the answer is. I’m curious to know your thoughts. In particular, I would like U.S.-based solutions.

Food for Thought

The following is a list of articles I’ve written that are related to this subject:

Roads are for People (November 2008)

This post wasn’t really about harassment, it was about the culture shift needed for people to feel welcome on our roads… which is a requirement for a livable community.

Harassment, Polarization and Backlash (July 2009)

Explores the backlash against an anti-harassment law in Columbia, MO. In a the comments to a post written by Bill Carpenter in 2010, I posted a few follow-up thoughts after asking a local coordinator how it had worked out.

The Culture of Speed vs the Culture of Trust (August 2009)

Thoughts on civility and trust after riding through Amish country.

Fighting Back Against Roadway Terrorists (January 2010)

Explores how the hostile behavior of a few sociopaths hurts the community, and the possibility of gathering video evidence to show the problem to community leaders and law enforcement in hopes of finding a solution.

Bullying. How do we stop it? (August 2010)

This post was stimulated by an incident in which a truck driver attempted to intimidate me in my car. Intimidation affects all road users, though it feels so much more personal when we are exposed (without a steel cage). The current system leaves all road users helpless to do anything about hostility and intimidation. We need a better way.

Anti-harassment ordinance gives civil court advantage (February 2011)

Explores the city of Los Angeles ordinance that allows bicyclists to sue harassers in civil court, bypassing the burden of having the crime witnessed by a sworn officer.

Comments are closed due to juvenile personal attacks on the author. 

36 Comments

  1. It is a mistake many make to believe these acts have anything to do with cyclist acts or failures. They are

    • instead, acts perpetrated by sick people upon those they see as easy or convenient victims.

    • It’s not a common occurrence but is certainly intimidating even to confident cyclists.

  2. I have seen my share of bullies while bicycling. Guns were aimed at me, twice. Bottles, orange peels, spit…all have flown past me. But when i look at how many normal people have driven past me, these are minute occurrences. When I was running I took more harassment than when bicycling, the more defensive you are is appealing to those that intimidate and run away. Nothing makes them happier than to look in their rear view mirror and see upset. You cannot fix self hating, immature, fearful people. They hate themselves, they have issues where they punish others instead of themselves for whatever reasons. They are immature as they cannot get over that childhood hump. And they actually are afraid, of what…well, who knows. But it is a driving force and causes them to challenge the “weak” to bolster their own ego and allay their own fears. We just need to keep doing what we are doing, the “normal” people know we are there and treat bicyclists with respect and caution. They FAR outnumber the screw ups.

    • Gail, you and I have the benefit of this perspective because we have ridden tens of thousands of miles. We know most drivers are courteous and sociopaths are rare. The experience has a much greater impact on someone who doesn’t have that point of reference to balance it.

  3. I meant defenseless, not defensive.

  4. Wearing a helmet camera can offer police the opportunity to witness an incident on video, and a high-resolution helmet camera can capture a license-plate number too. That’s how the motorist who ran down two cyclists in Oakland, Califronia a couple of months ago was identified, and charged. The video footage also can provide publicity for the harassment issue, and the awareness that cyclists are using cameras can lead sociopaths to think twice. There is the inconvenience though of having to maintain and run the camera (not much more trouble though than with bicycle lights), some small added risk of injury with a camera on top of the helmet … but also, the need to housekeep the video files, very time-consuming for me because I like to keep my camera running during a ride and generally find one or two short items of interest that I want to edit and preserve. Then there’s editing the video, which requires a powerful home computer, and software (total investment around $1500, not nearly so bad as it used to be) and lots of time…I still haven’t edited and posted everything I recorded with Keri last May :-/ Because of these hassles, I generally only record bicycle video on special occasions.

  5. I asked Keri elsewhere whether video would help address the issue. Apparently, her interaction with law enforcement led her to believe that video does not satisfy the requirement.

    Personally, I think that some lawyers need to look at this requirement for law enforcement to physically observe the crime. It wildly lacks common sense such that it could be ripe for being repealed of sorts.

      • Just trying to get where he was going. Yeah right. He had plenty of room to move into the left lane. The light was red ahead. And clearly he wasn’t in that much of a hurry since he was willing to get out of the car and pick a fight. Then he acts like he’s being victimized by the bicyclist.

        The refusal of the police to do anything when you have clear video is disheartening, but not surprising.

        Perhaps we need our own version of the Hells Angels.

      • Eric, have you linked your video on bostonbiker.org? Or I could do it for you. We had a major waffling experience at the Bikeboston (City of Boston bicycle program) annual update in January, with the City describing how it would go for “light enforcement”. Light indeed. Someone needs to *light* a fire under the BPD on this issue and your video would help :-)

        • Not my video. It’s from somebody named Eoin O’Carroll. I just used it as an example.

      • OK, now I see that it isn’t Eric’s own video, the line blow the link is not his own. The local TV coverage he linked to previously is heavily biased in that it doesn’t include the original buzzing incident — it only shows the altercation between the motorist and bicyclist, and the bicyclist is not interviewed. All couched as “battle between bicyclists and motorists.

        This throws some light on the advice that “you can’t always believe what you see on the Internet — turn to reliable news sources.”

        • “All couched as “battle between bicyclists and motorists.

          What passes for “reporting” these days. Everything is a “he said she said” thing and all statements, no matter how outlandish or “disingenuous”, is valid.

          Just once, I would like to hear a local reporter say, “Oh, come on!” during an interview.

  6. After a couple incidents in Sunnyvale I got a clip to attach my iPhone to my bike handle bars. I have been recording every ride since then. Across the bay from the Oakland sideswiping I had a elderly lady sideswipe me so close her mirror caught my jacket sleeve. It’s on YouTube “Sunnyvale sideswipe”.
    I had quite a different response from the Police. Though perfect video allowed him to witness the incident legally, he chose not to for two reasons he stated. First one is that “I chose to do a dangerous activity and I should expect it to happen sometime” [I countered him on that with a couple health stats otherwise and that was irrevant to a law violation] 2nd one is he stated “Santa Clara DA office and Traffic Court will not prosecute non injury incidents with cyclists”. I am still aghast with the bias built into the system against any non motorized use of streets , cycling or walking.

    Sunnyvale just last week passed the antiHarrisement ordinance for cyclists. It will
    Be a study topic hopefully to expand it to pedistrians, as council after reading Jacobsens “Injury Prevention” paper “Who owns the roads? How motorized traffic discourages walking and bicycling” became aware that’s there is some serious bullying out there.

    • One more comment. You do not need a computer to do this. After exploring methods, I now find the iPhone takes 5 minutes tops to extract segments right on the iPhone and using IMovie on the phone upload to Vimeo directly as way to get discussion and investigation going on on biking incidents. Other smart phone may have similarly quick and easy tools. More cyclists that do this more likely it will be accepted that vehicular bullying is a issue that police should enforce current vehicular laws rather than the indifferent they get what they deserve enforcement that most police sadly do now.

  7. As a retired Michigan law enforcement officer, I will try to explain what can and should be done. The main problem with these encounters is that they are treated as misdemeanors. For an officer to effect arrest he/she needs to witness the violation. Only felony arrests can be made without a warrant on probable cause to believe that a violation occurred and the person to be arrested is the perpetrator.
    Unwitnessed (by an officer) misdemeanors can still be enforced but only after a written complaint is made to the prosecutor. In this report the perpetrator has to be identified,the time and place the violation occurred and witnesses identified. A warrant may then be issued by the prosecutor and sworn to by an officer. There are several weak links in this chain. First is identifying and finding the perpetrator. Cars can’t be arrested. So, the officer or his department needs to be willing and able to do the investigation to identify the perpetrator and then take a report to the prosecutor. The prosecutor then has to have the will to take this violation seriously enough to make it worth the time and expense of his office and the court’s. So, when an officer tells you nothing can be done, technically he is not correct in a complaint where you have at least a license number. The officer is either reflecting his own prejudices or that the resources are not available to do all the follow-up only to be denied by the prosecutor or being dismissed by a judge. In this case, somebody driving a Maserati probably can afford a good attorney and/or he may have connections with the prosecutors or judges so he has no fear of repercussions.
    Many of these “buzzings” are actually felony assaults. If someone uses a firearm to scare anyone without just cause, an arrest is made. If someone is annoying you, try giving them a warning shot and see what happens. This is what this perp did with his Maserati.
    Continue reporting these encounters. Meet with the police chief(s) and the prosecutor(s) to identify where the problems lie.

    • John, thank you so much for this excellent explanation!

    • “This is what this perp did with his Maserati.”

      I never heard of people being charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (a 3rd degree low level felony in this state) using a car until a few years ago.

      Now, the charge is being brought pretty mostly when a suspect is surrounded by the police and attempts to drive away anyway. Then, it is a “bargaining chip” charge and is thrown in with the attempted murder charge. There is progress, but it certainly is slow.

  8. Between the Maserati and the behavior (plus what looks like a Jersey-Shore-style tight black t-shirt), I think we can safely say that his finger is bigger than his…

  9. I developed my reporting technique back in college (the first round, Ford administration).

    –Get as much of the tag as possible, and a description of the vehicle.
    Mnemonics help as a memory aid if you don’t have a camera or writing implements. (I remember riding for a couple miles reciting “Crazy Loony Driver 423.” Another time I used my fingernail to etch it into the styrofoam top of my take-out meal.)

    –When you talk to LEO, tell the story, but save your fragile user status for last. Unsafe driving, aggressive, close pass… “and I was on a bicycle, so I could have been seriously injured.”

    –Ask LEO to contact the owner of the vehicle. You might get “since you didn’t get a good look at the driver, we don’t know who did it.”
    Yeahbut…if it was the teenage son, dad needs to know the manner in which his vehicle is being operated.

    I’ve had this discussion with cops, and immediately they run the tag, confirm that it was a blue late-model Nash, sometimes say, “registered on Oak Street.” Wow.

    –Most LEO these days have gone through IPMBA training and are sympathetic. Obviously they can’t pull out all the stops on hearsay, but they’ll make a phone call (sometimes a home visit) based on anecdotal evidence.

    And sometimes you get lucky: http://home.earthlink.net/~karendunnam/writing.htm#Sharing

  10. Keri writes “In most cases, I’m not able to get the license plate.”

    Well, that’s a whole lot better than me! I ain’t got one yet, despite practicing. If I do get one, you can bet I will pursue civil remedies if the police do not help. The guy with the Maserati probably has deep pockets…

    • I have never been able to get a plate without HD video in a open road situation. They get away too fast. The only times I have gotten a plate it was because I was able to catch up to the motorist in traffic.

    • Patrick, you’ve really got good video. I could read the tag number perfectly. Can I ask what mount/case you use for the iPhone?

      • It’s a otter box defender with a slip grip bike mount for IPhone 4s. They have changed the design slightly since I bought mine, probably good as I had to monkey around with it a bit to,get a good view angle. I was thinking about mounting a mirror surface priece of aluminum in the bottom of camera field on the mount so the camera view would show the cars approaching for the rear. I suggested they add that to the molding process on the mount.

  11. I’m not sure exactly what’s required, but I know something is. Maybe an anti-harassment law is the answer, with civil actions facilitated like the one Los Angeles passed. Has anyone encountered any cases using the law since it was passed? Or what changes if any have been observed in the LA cyclist/motorist culture due to the law?

  12. My experience and others in DE is that it depends on the individual LEO, but it is not unusual for the officers to explain the motorists offense but refuse to cite them (I had plate, identified teenage son on officer’s computer – officer explained it was leaving the scene of accident, not hit and run, after driver said he couldn’t pay and drove off). I don’t believe the driver would have no citation if he’d hit the officer’s police or official vehicle, but since the officer didn’t bicycle (report omitted my lights as equipment on bicycle), hitting bicyclists cannot be a legal offense if bicyclists cannot legally require motorists to cede the right of way (as explained to me by DelDOT).

    You can guess at the facilities DelDOT installs – some are good, many create new problems that did not exist before motorists expected bicyclists to be in the new bike lanes.
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    • Angelo,

      My grandmother lives in Wilmington. What I’ve seen around there is that they are slapping bike stencils in shoulders without changing the design or concerning themselves with sudden interruptions and right turn lanes.

      • Keri,

        This sounds like an optimistic description of what I’ve seen in New Castle County (Wilmington address, but outside limits of City of Wilmington)

        My impression is that the City of Wilmington planners and Bicycle Access Council actually prefer no facilities to bad facilities. I think the city limits are small enough that a number of them actually bicycle and don’t want build facilities they would never want to ride in.

        The state roads in New Castle County are another matter. One of my rules of thumb is that if the shoulder is too narrow for the bicycle stencil, it’s too narrow to be a bike lane. (You can guess what inspired this rule.)

        DelDOT actually does have concern for right turn lanes. They don’t want bicycles interfering with right turning cars.

        http://www.bikede.org/2011/07/25/bike-lanes-white-lines-and-the-mutcd/

        There has been quite a bit of discussion on this topic, with a nominally more liberal policy. But when some streets have been resurfaced recently, existing bike lanes are still newly striped to the curb.

        http://www.bikede.org/2012/03/02/deldot-slowly-retiring-share-the-road-2/

        The key is slowly – these signs are still being added to roads where the 3′ bike lanes are eliminated to add turning lanes

        A few of the planners believe bicycles are allowed to operate as traffic and can have the right of way, but many do not, or believe bicyclists need permission to leave bike lanes. These planners ARE concerned with discontinuities and right turn lanes – they need them to make their restrictions on the bicyclists clear.

        (Discussion with too many of these planners and with advocates who keep insisting that bad facilities are better than no facilities because they give bicyclists a place to ride has left me cynical.)

  13. I’ve had one incident of harassment in 8 years in Springfield. My attempt to involve the police was less than satisfying for some of the same reasons mentioned in this thread. I made the mistake of not getting a photo of the license plate. Apparently I remembered it incorrectly, because the officer in charge of my case has told me on two occasion that he is unable to find the perp based on the plate number and description of the car. Hmmmmm…

    • Or the perp was using license plates that belong to another vehicle.

      I’ve been hit before by a sociopath driver who fled the scene. I am 100% sure I remembered the license plate correctly, but the investigating officer said it belonged to a pickup truck, not the sedan that I was hit with. I suggested he contact the truck owner and let him know that someone had stolen his plates, but he seemed more interested in just dropping the case.

      Another related problem is that, here in Maine at least, the BMV allows duplicate license plate tags on different “styles” of plates. That means that someone can have “EARTH” on the chickadee plate and someone else can have “EARTH” on the loon plate and someone else can have “EARTH” on the UMaine plate and someone else can have “EARTH” on the lobster plate…

      So much for the idea of a license plate being a unique identifier.

  14. What I find most strange is the “Nothing can be done if a police officer didn’t see it.” I’ve never heard of anywhere else with that attitude.

    Does it extend to other crimes of violence as well? Do rapists, bank robbers, muggers, etc, get off if a police officer does not see their crimes?

    And where does this come from? Is it a police department policy? If so, then it is time to change that policy. Is it Florida state law? Where does it come from?

    All I know is that if anyone had done that to me and a friend around here, we would be dialling 911. Not the non-emergency number because a violent, dangerous criminal on the loose with a lethal weapon is the highest category of emergency for our local police department. With two witnesses, he would have been swiftly arrested for Dangerous Driving and imprisoned.

    If he gets out on bail, one of the bail conditions would be a driving prohibition. Two witnesses should lead to a conviction. Upon sentencing, this crime is good for up to five years in jail.

  15. Party because I live in the urban core, I don’t find harassment to be a continuous problem. It’s actually quite rare.

    Keri,

    I’m curious – do you find more harassment outside the urban area? My experience has generally been the opposite – county drivers are fine with bicyclists obeying normal traffic laws. However, drivers get angry with congested traffic in Wilmington and Philadelphia. I get far more honking, profanity and shouts to get on the sidewalk in 10-15mph traffic than I do on 40mph roads. (Where drivers just pass me and keep going.)

    • Yes, it’s the same here. I rarely have problems in the urban core of Orlando. I think that has to do with slow speeds and expectations. Winter Park has the same type of environment, but I’ve had more encounters with impatient (entitled) drivers there than in Orlando… fitting the demographic they are always driving luxury cars.

      I wonder what drives the hostility you experience in 10-15mph traffic. I haven’t experienced that here. I’ve been harassed at red lights twice. Both times were so absurd they were comical. Once I was in the queue at a red light instead of in a bike lane (that ended in the next block). A guy (in a Mercedes) flipped out on me, honking and screaming, “get in the bike lane! you belong in the bike lane!” He then got a face-full of Irish and learned why it’s a tactical error to berate a cyclist when you can’t escape.
      Another time I was first in line in a very narrow lane. The guy behind me sat there through the whole light cycle honking and yelling at me to get out of the way. He was making such an ass of himself that the motorcyclist in the lane next to mine told him to shut up.