13 August 2008

New Age of Road Rage

The recent coverage by the media of cyclists has truly been exciting; there hasn’t been this much in the news since Lance Armstrong retired from cycling, and the greatest come-from-behind story in US cycling since Greg LeMond was finally litigated into being a fraud. Images from these stories have been gruesome and even scary. Living in LA, nothing has hit harder than the Mandeville Canyon incident.
So, hearing similar stories about a cyclist being beaten down after commenting on someone’s driving, to stories commenting on cyclist traffic behavior, and reflecting on some of my own experiences, I decided to address the New Age of Road Rage.

First, I have been a driver/pedestrian, I have been a driver/cyclist/pedestrian, and I have been a cyclist/pedestrian. In every faculty, I have made mistakes. People were cut off. I have run red lights. I have jay walked. Pretty much any way I could have traveled, I have made errors. Fortunately, everyone around me was paying a little more attention, and collisions were avoided. While doing my driving/cycling/walking, I have had the chance to observe the technical skills others employ in these activities, and I think I can safely say that nobody has a lifetime of perfection in any of these.

Now, even though we mostly agree, there has been a lot of discussion about the reason why this is such a hot issue now. Working at a bike shop, I can tell you that sales are through the roof. Some shops are announcing huge vacations in the middle of summer because they are sold out of everything! And driving? GM is mortgaging its future to sell SUVs to anyone who will still take them, even offering to lock in gas at 2.99 a gallon. Americans feel more strained to make ends meet than ever. I am not a psychologist, but I know a thing or two about economics. And everything makes me say: “man, we are some stressed out folks.”

So, as we try and confront our stress, be it in car, bicycle saddle, motorcycle, or crowded train, let my personal reflections help you keep your cool in the slow-moving summer commute.

When I was riding my bicycle back from brunch with a friend one morning, a concerned motorist passed me. Whimsically and foolishly, I had left my helmet at home, thinking the 5 block trip did not call for it. In a moment of absolute righteous indignation, the motorist yelled out his window “hey, you’re a fucking idiot!” I had no idea what he was saying, but when I asked him to clarify, he repeated himself in a more civilized tone and added “if you are going to ride your bike in traffic, you should at least have a helmet.”

What could I say? He was right, though I did let him know that his delivery really didn’t inspire any obedience. And then it hit me (fortunately, it wasn’t a car). All these years that I had ridden motorcycles and bicycles and cars, cursing motorists for merging into my lane without checking their blind spot, cutting me off, and usurping the right of way, was all in vain. No more did my chiding break these drivers of their bad habits as did this motorist’s chiding break mine. After all, I almost ALWAYS wear my helmet. Even though it doesn’t look as cool, I am way too cool to be dead. And all these drivers who don’t see me, or whatever they may have done, did not set out this morning to kill a cyclist (I know there are isolated cases where this logic does not hold up, but let’s simplify the discussion by assuming that drivers who did intend to hurt cyclists are just as crazy as random guys who start bar fights just to see a little blood flow).

So now that I no longer feel the need to correct and chide and insult every errant driver, I can enjoy the day more. Even if someone is a terrible rage-a-holic, my effort to reform them is pointless. I am sure that their family, lovers, friends, and the crew of “Intervention” have all been trying for years to do what I am only spending seconds on. In fact, I am trying to do it one better. When I accidentally took the right turn on red during someone else’s protected left today, I stopped by the car and apologized. The driver looked at me like he had never heard an apology before, and in the context, it is a great possibility.

Now, on another night, I didn’t take things as coolly. I had stayed at my office until midnight working on a project. After a 14 hr workday, an 8 mile ride home did not seem inviting. When I work that late, I will usually take Santa Monica Blvd from Century City instead of Little Santa Monica, which has more stoplights, but a smoother right lane and some delightful eye candy on the sidewalks. This particular night, I was booking along at a decent clip, not a car in sight, when I started to see headlights creep up on me. The headlights turned into warmth radiating off of the engine behind me, and finally culminated in a long, obnoxious honk.

BikeSnobNYC has covered honking pretty thoroughly, and my reactionary impulse is a little more violent. When we got to the stoplight, I was able to see that the offending vehicle was a BMW 7 series with an overweight, Caucasian, male drive and an overweight, Caucasian, female passenger holding a doggy bag in her lap (there was a restaurant that served so much food that not even THEY could finish it?). I was able to restrain my most primal desire, and simply shrugged my shoulders, as if to say “there was nobody in the left lane; why didn’t you just pass me?” Then the passenger rolls down her window and says:
“Get off the road!”
“Where should I go?” I asked, my shoulders still shrugging.
“On the sidewalk!”
“There isn’t one.” If you have ever ridden Santa Monica Blvd heading East, there is no sidewalk on that side of the street, and the right lane has only a 1 foot wide strip that is rideable. And before I could add “besides, the road is the safest place for me to be,” Kirsty Alley wanna-be had rolled up her window, and pre-Ironman John Favreau slammed his foot on the gas. And right there, I had another epiphany: some of these people don’t know! Some drivers do not know the laws regarding safe road sharing between automobile and bicycle. And we are all guilty of this in some way. How many folks do you know that get a perfect score on the driving exam? How many people do you think get all of the bicycle-specific questions right?

Keeping this in mind, I try to keep it cool around imperfect drivers. I do the same around imperfect cyclists, motorcyclists, pedestrians, and myself. Until the day I come across someone who is out for blood, I will try my best to assume that after all is said and done, most people want to get where they are going without incident. And I am just the same: another imperfect road-user, powerless to change the road around me. Until the police begin enforcing the proper passing cushions, motorists intimidating cyclists, and cyclists blowing red lights like they don’t exist, nobody is going to change their habits. And until then, we should not take it upon ourselves to enforce these laws on each other. More than likely, those were the questions you and I got wrong on our driver’s tests.

1 comment:

Nadia said...

wow--that is amazingly written---good job cuz. It makes me feel more anxious yet less nervous to try living carless in LA.