Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Particular Odd Interaction With A Driver. Sometimes The Illogical Behavior On Our Road Hurts My Brain.

Downtown StreetsI'm quite used to drivers honking at me even though I am doing nothing wrong, simply moving slower than they are sometimes. Usually they eventually just pass and go around just fine. I make a point of traveling on streets with 2 lanes of traffic each way when I can so drivers have a convenient passing lane. I'd like to preface the following story by saying the majority of drivers get along just fine, it's a minority of drivers, but a minority large enough to be encountered far too often, that won't play nice.

Sometimes a driver feels they must take things further, and use their car as a threatening weapon, presumably to "teach me a lesson". Tuesday on Colorado Ave., an SUV driver with a Jack Skeleton Nightmare Before Christmas icon attached to his trailer hitch, honked, honked, honked again, then buzzed me, passing with less than a foot clearance at high speed, even though there was a completely open lane he could have used to pass safely and easily. I compare this behavior to being like a big bully walking around with a metal baseball bat, swinging it around, generally with no real intent to actually hit anyone, but to threaten others he perceives to be in his way. Behavior we would never tolerate in society except when an automobile is the weapon.

Of course as is often the case when these impatient drivers want to speed around, he had to stop at the end of the block for the red light. Some drivers don't seem to understand traffic signal timing dictates their progress  in the city far more than anything like having to pass a slower moving vehicle, and I often pull right up to the same light pedaling along at 15 mph. So I pulled up behind the driver, my heart rate elevated from his nearly swiping me with his mirror. I did not want to deal with a verbal altercation with this person, so I did not filter up, and remained behind the vehicle.

I did want to make my displeasure known in some manner however. So I did want I generally do to rude or careless drivers when I'm a pedestrian, I give the cold deep stare, to remind them they are facing a real human being. I rolled very close to the back of their vehicle and just stared into their rear view mirror. I could tell this made him a little uncomfortable, but that was the point, snap him out of his soulless automaton mode of driver, and remind him human beings are on our streets.

This is where it got really odd. I have observed numerous incarnations of road raging behavior, illogical driver behavior, careless behavior, but that day I saw something new. Presumably to "teach me a lesson", he proceeded to drive at incredibly slow speed when the light went green, and by slow I mean, really really slow. 4-5 mph slow, a few times almost a dead stop, the kind of slow that is hard to even accomplish on a bicycle unless you have good balance. I did not want to pass, because the much faster moving traffic in the next lane would have made it hard to merge safely, and I did not want to put my self in a position where this driver really could cause physical harm to me, so I just stayed behind and rolled slow, calling his bluff.

I don't know what he thought he was going to accomplish, I obviously had more patience and was in a less of a hurry to get where I was going, mainly since I had not very far to go. Within a few moments, he started to lose interest in his little stunt and drove off going full speed again. Presumably he was in a hurry to get where he was going, since he felt it necessary to honk at me for being slower, and swerved around screeching up the road earlier. However by deliberately driving so pitifully slow "to teach me a lesson" when the light turned green at the next block, he actually slowed his own progress far more than my presence had. This act placed him numerous car positions back before the road was to merge to one lane. Can anyone explain to me the logic of such behavior, because it sure as hell makes no sense to me?

Another point this odd interaction revealed, a notion I've already known, but which this story reinforces, is that when the driver held up traffic by driving even slower than a bicyclist, no one honked in retaliation at him. Drivers are far more tolerant and forgiving of being held up by other drivers than they are of cyclists. One of many signs of a clear mode bias.  When a driver is going slow, traffic is backed up, or a large construction vehicle is going slow, sometimes impatient drivers act out, but nearly always with more patience than for a cyclist. It's become clear to me that no matter our legal rights, to be a cyclist is to become a second class road user in practice.

Cultural acceptance of cyclists as legitimate road users is I think the biggest hurdle keeping many people from trying riding. In theory things like bike lanes wouldn't even be necessary if drivers simply behaved with some basic level of civility toward cyclists. This is an issue that goes beyond infrastructure, and while changing the road striping may reduce conflict in some areas, not every street will get a bike lane, and we need everyone to know cyclists have a right to ride on any street. I think there is tendency in our planning to think of some streets as streets where we might have people riding a bike, and other streets prioritize for driving. In reality even some of the streets that are terrible environments to ride a bike, still have many cyclists, such as Lincoln Blvd, due to it's direct routing and even grade, and connection to local business.

While we may want to prioritize some streets for bike routes, we have to start with the assumption that since cyclists have a right to every street, and every street is a street cyclists will ride. Some drivers operate on the understanding that cyclists only have a right to ride where there are bike lanes. I've been shouted at to get in the bike lane on streets that don't even have a bike lane. Having bike lanes on some streets does nothing to clarify the legal right for cyclists to use all streets. There is an education gap, that starts with parents, continues through school, perpetuated by inadequate DMV requirements and materials, and onward. It is a significant challenge now with so many people already on the road who do not understand the rules of the road, but something has to be done.

I was glad to see Santa Monica included some info on bicycling in the recent Seascape (page 2) newsletter sent to residents. Concerning driving behavior however, I don't really think it's the resident drivers that are biggest problem, but rather everyone driving into Santa Monica. That will be a tougher nut to crack.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


It is a cultural issue. In my observation

(i) It has nothing to do with speed. I get more harassment when traffic is blocked by other cars, both profanity from drivers, and one policeman threatened to cite me for impeding traffic by going slower than the speed limit (congestion slowed cars in front of me to 10mph when speed limit was 25).

(2) The bike lanes I've seen don't help. Drivers turning right insist they have the right of way - they don't merge right in PA and don't respect pedestrians or bicyclists in cross walks or bike lanes. Again, I could easily keep up in the lane but thought I'd try the new bike lanes. I was not impressed no matter how many novices they can lure into the door zone. (Someone I know was doored and lost a leg years ago.)

The Dept. Trans here insists door zones lanes are more comfortable for occasional riders and meet standards; at this point it's gotten to the point that I'd like to seem them have non-drivers design the interstates, since they reject complaints about door zones or striping bike lanes to the right of right turn arrows.