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Bicycle/driver confrontation philosophies: escalation vs. detente

Bicycling bliss is vulnerable. So much depends on maintaining peace with the automobiles swirling the streets, deadly as sharks.

Bicycling bliss is vulnerable. So much depends on maintaining peace with the automobiles swirling the streets, deadly as sharks.
MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Most of the time, bicycling around the city is borderline blissful. The rhythms of pedals lull, and following your front tire’s silent path through the ever-changing city can become addicting. People of all stripes hook themselves on the feeling, so far removed from the contained, tepid stress of driving.

But bicycling bliss is also vulnerable. So much depends on maintaining peace with the automobiles swirling the streets, deadly as sharks. And while most Twin Cities drivers are well behaved, eventually it happens. A horn honks behind you. A driver speeds up and turns in front of your tire as you squeeze the brakes. Someone yells out the window — “Get on the sidewalk!” or (yes, somehow I still hear this) “Hey Lance!” — or throws a fast-food bag at you.

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The thin bubble of pleasure bursts in an instant, a trip ruined.

But then what? If a driver yells, honks, or brushes an inch off your elbow, what do you do?

Every bicyclist has a different answer, and attitudes vary from actual violence to nonconfrontation mantras. For some, these moments define their everyday journeys. For others, it’s another opportunity to transcend the stressful world of road rage. Either way, everyone has a unique approach to handling the inevitable bicycle confrontation. 

Two camps 

You can break down confrontation thinking into two broad camps. First, there are those who engage with the offending driver. These practices range from “having the talk” to yelling, to the inevitable middle digit, a cathartic gesture that likely goes unnoticed half the time. (The last time I deployed my middle digit to express my opinion about a car parked in the bike lane, something that I rarely do, the driver sped up and went around me to offer an earful of unintelligible anger.)

“Having the talk” can be difficult, and it’s not something that comes easily to a nonconfrontational Minnesotan. To get a feel for the intensity of one of these situations, check out the video from Mike Sonn, who bikes 5 miles through St. Paul each day. Like many Twin Cities cyclists, Sonn mounts a camera on his rear wheel simply for the purpose of documenting the often dangerous encounters with cars. 

Like many Twin Cities cyclists, Mike Sonn mounts a camera on his rear wheel simply for the purpose of documenting the often dangerous encounters with cars.

For many others, the moment of confrontation is more carefully considered.

“I had a friend who taught me a strategy of confronting a driver by being very calm and pretending the driver was very innocent,” a Minneapolis bicyclist named Hannah Kaplan told me. “Like ‘Oh! Maybe you didn’t realize? Cars are legally required to leave 3 feet between them and a bike while passing!” or, “Oh! I see! You think bikes should stay on the sidewalk? That’s actually illegal in Minneapolis, and I have to ride on the street!’ The theory behind this was to explain a cyclist’s right to exist in the most fault-neutral way possible, and disarm someone’s anger.”

All over the city, many bicyclists take it upon themselves to play peacemaker.

“I honestly don’t think most drivers understand what it’s like being in traffic on a bike,” said Linda Winsor, a St. Paul cyclist committed to pedagogy. “One thing I try and do is I try to make eye contact and show how scary it was for me. If there is a chance, I’ll go up to the window to talk. My first comments are usually, ‘Gosh, that was really close, you know. If I wasn’t extra cautious you could have killed me.’ ”

Both Winsor’s and Kaplan’s tactics seem almost impossibly difficult to me. Often, as the Sonn video demonstrates, a near miss leaves a cyclist full of adrenaline, in no state to have a reasoned conversation. But one way to dissolve tense situations is through mediation. 

“Sometimes I’ll see what appears to be a parent with a child — in middle school or high school in the car or something — sometimes those people are the most shocked that they did something dumb,” Winsor told me.

The gentle education strategy has its limits, though. Here’s a story that Hannah Kaplan told me (which I am including at length).

“One day I was riding in Dinkytown with the very woman who taught me the [gentle confrontation] strategy,” Kaplan said. “We were riding single file in a bike lane on University when a man in a 15-passenger van swerved into the bike lane and tried to deliberately run me over while screaming profanity out the window.”

“We kept riding and pulled up next to him at a light, where my friend said (very calmly), ‘I’m not sure if you realize, but you almost killed her back there. Vehicular homicide carries a really long jail sentence; I hope for your family’s sake that you will be more careful!” at which point the man let loose such a violent stream of profanity — directed, at me, not my friend — that it truly horrified me. And he then GOT OUT OF HIS VAN, abandoning it in the middle of traffic, and attacked us. We were physically uninjured, because two young women on bicycles are a lot more nimble than a fat man trying to run through traffic,” Kaplan continued.

“Honestly, it scared me sufficiently that I abandoned commuting by bicycle shortly thereafter and remain a much less confident cyclist than I was before this happened. It was very striking to me that being a woman on a bicycle left me completely vulnerable to any random anger from drivers, and in pretty much any conflict, I was going to come out on the losing end,” Kaplan said.

The story illustrates the danger of the confrontation approach. I have at least two friends who have found themselves in physical altercations after trying to talk to (or yell at) an angry driver.

Zen and the art of bicycle nonconfrontation

The opposite attitude — which, after Seinfeld, I call “serenity now!” — is to let driver’s hostility wash right over you like water off a duck’s back, to somehow rise above the menace or threat. Like a 9-year-old confronting a bully, you try to ignore the problem. 

“I simply avoid the people who cause problems,” said Andrew Tubesing, a St. Paul bicyclist who embraces willful ignorance. “By engaging aggressive or angry drivers I can only make matters worse. A little zen goes a long way. I take a deep breath, stay clear of the danger as best I can, and ride on (or get off the road, if need be). I don’t have to teach anybody anything, and if it’s come to the ‘confrontation’ point already, they’re obviously not in a mood to be receptive to any teachings I might have to offer. More likely, anything I say will be used by them to reinforce whatever gripe they already hold.” 

The same principle — one that I share, by the way — holds for Andrew Wambach, a Minneapolis cyclist who told me that “in my philosophy, it’s better to ignore the person yelling at you and to not engage. Engaging risks aggravation, and if they are in a car a simple side swipe and you could be hurt or killed.”

Kids: the cure for the confrontation blues

It might be a cliché to say so, but in digging around and talking to people for this story, it came up multiple times: Motherhood can change you.

“Usually I just let it go and shake my head, but I had one lady in a Kia scream at me from her car to get on the sidewalk,” said Janell Walter, a St. Paul cyclist. “I had my 6-year-old on the tagalong behind me, and unfortunately for them they got stopped at the stoplight just ahead. So I rolled up on them and politely said, ‘We can legally be on the road,’ and then pulled up to the light and waited for it to turn green. It was a little more of a conversation with my 6-year-old after that, though, on why someone would do that. Pretty sad when a 6-year-old knows the rules better than most drivers.”

The same rule applies for Dana Demaster, a St. Paul cyclist and mother of two kids.

“When I was younger, if someone did something aggressive I would be up in their face, start yelling and screaming and go up to people’s windows and say ‘What are you doing? I’m a person!’ and remind them of that humanity,” Demaster explained. “But that’s not very effective, and I don’t think it ever changed anyone’s perspective.”

Since she has begun taking children along on rides, Demaster has switched her philosophy to one of contained protection.

“Riding with [my son] Quinn, generally speaking people are super nice and go way out of their way to give us space,” Demaster explained. “But a few people have yelled at us or thrown stuff at us, and it really freaks me out to have someone threaten my child. I get super heated, but I can’t respond because it freaks Quinn out and gets him really wound up. So I usually get to the safest spot possible and point out to him, ‘Well that person was really rude weren’t they?’ or ‘What did you think of what just happened?’ and he’ll say ‘That was scary’ and we’ll talk about how people make those kinds of choices.”

Next time a moment of confrontation happens — and like it or not, there will be a next time — now you have some choices. It’s best to consider it now, because in the moment of confrontation, there’s not much time to think.