This is the first of a two-part section on Road Rage. In this first part Bob Mionske explains road rage from a legal perspective – what it is, legally as well as psychologically, and how it affects cyclists. In Part II, next week, Bob explains how to handle it.((
In When Tempers Flare, I began a discussion of road rage with a real-life road rage incident that occurred just south of Portland, Oregon in February of this year. In that incident, a cyclist alleged that his riding group was buzzed by a driver, who then threatened to run him down. The cyclist reported that he responded to that threat by slapping the side-view mirror of the SUV. According to the cyclist, the SUV driver then backed up, aimed for the cyclist, and floored it, striking the cyclist and knocking him down. Miraculously, the cyclist survived the encounter with only minor injuries.
There was more to the story, however, than I reported; here’s what happened in the aftermath of the assault on the cyclist’s life. The cyclist called law enforcement and reported the hit and run; the other cyclists who witnessed the incident corroborated his story. The responding Sheriff’s Deputy said there are two sides to every story, but nevertheless went in search of the driver, and found him. The cyclist was expecting justice, but what happened next shocked him—the Sheriff’s Department told him the driver was willing to “drop the whole thing” and “let bygones be bygones” if the cyclist would let it drop at his end. The driver was alleging that the cyclist had damaged his mirror when he slapped it. Well, the cyclist was not willing to let it drop, so he insisted that the Deputy file charges against the driver. One week later, the cyclist received an even greater shock when he received a citation for Criminal Mischief, a misdemeanor with a base fine of $5,000. The Sheriff’s Department refused to confirm or deny whether the driver had also been cited for his role in the incident.
I had barely written about this when another incident made the news, this time in New York. In June of this year, Manhattan cyclist Ray Bengen attempted to squeeze by an SUV that was illegally stopped in the bike lane. As Bengen was passing, the SUV began to move; fearing that the driver was unaware of his presence next to the SUV, Bengen slapped the side of the SUV. Bengen described what happened next:
“The driver then went berserk. Talk about road rage. He threw open his door, forcing me and my bike to the ground giving me some awful bruising down my leg. As I was now on the ground yelling at him that he’s in a bike lane and was just about to run me over, he started to scream at me ‘Don’t even think about it, don’t even think about it.’ I’m still not sure what he meant by that. With me lying on the ground quite shaken, he suddenly stopped his assault and did something very unexpected. He moved away from me, picked up my bike where it was nearly underneath his truck. He then stood it up on its kickstand, and got back in the truck and drove away left into 20th street.”
The incident was investigated by a Detective from the 10th Precinct, and Bengen’s account was corroborated by an eyewitness, who took photographs of the attack as it was occurring.As reported in Streetsblog, within a month, the Manhattan D.A.’s office had concluded its investigation and filed charges—against the cyclist for Criminal Mischief, and the driver for Assault.
These two incidents, occurring a few months apart, and on opposite ends of the country, nevertheless both resulted in criminal charges against the cyclist for their roles in the violence. When you retaliate against a driver, you run the risk of being perceived as a mutual combatant—or worse, as the instigator—by the police, and ultimately, by a jury.
Both of these incidents were classic encounters with road rage. In When Tempers Flare, I observed that
Anybody who rides has likely had some sort of negative encounter with a motorist—a blast from the horn, a shout to get off the road, a thrown object, or a menacing swerve of the vehicle.
Most of these incidents never progress to the level of epic road rage violence; nevertheless, the surest way to prevent them from escalating to epic road rage is to begin by understanding what road rage is, and from that understanding, developing a strategy to counter road rage.
What is Road Rage?
When road rage erupts, it always begins with an expression of anger, and therefore, these incidents raise questions: Why? What causes the anger , and how does it lead to road rage? One source of the conflict between motorists and cyclists stems from the competition over the use of the limited resource of space on the road. Another source of the anger is the inescapable feeling of restriction that drivers experience. In his article “Bike Rage,” Charles Montgomery writes:
“The driving experience primes car drivers for meltdowns. They are conditioned by popular culture to see cars as symbols of freedom, yet city driving is a slow-motion trap that subjects drivers to constant restrictions on their movement. Drivers are thwarted from enjoying the promise of motion by traffic lights, by congestion – and yes, by cyclists – and they suffer the natural but impossible desire to escape and move forward. All this while being strapped to their seats!”
In fact, there are a number of factors influencing driver anger; road rage psychologist Dr. Leon James has identified fifteen sources of driver anger, including:(• Restriction: “Being prevented from moving forward when you expect to arouses frustration, and along with it anxiety and an intense desire to escape the restriction. This anxiety prompts drivers to perform risky or aggressive maneuvers to get away or get ahead.”
• Regulation: Regulation of driving “feels like an imposition and arouses a rebellious streak in many, which then prompts them to disregard whatever regulations seem wrong or inconvenient.”
• Lack of personal control: The “lack of personal control over traffic events is frustrating and often leads to venting anger on whoever is around.”
• Being put in danger: “Hair-raising close calls and hostile incidents” result in “physiological stress, along with many negative emotions — fear, resentment, rage, a sense of helplessness, and a depressed mood.”
• Venting: Vented anger “is felt as an energizing rush. This seductive feeling is short-lived, and is accompanied by a stream of anger-inspiring thoughts that impair judgment and tempt us into rash and dangerous actions.”
• Unpredictability: “Streets and highways create an environment of drama, danger, and uncertainty.”
These feelings, simmering beneath the surface, threaten to boil over in anger as soon as somebody to blame can be found. And then along rolls a cyclist, taking up road space, slowing people down, wearing funny clothes, not paying taxes, and not even obeying the law! Never mind that some of these stereotypes may not even be true; the cyclist makes a convenient scapegoat to blame.
Everybody feels anger on the road at times. But anger alone isn’t road rage; it’s when we act on that anger that it is transformed into road rage. What we call epic “road rage” begins when the person feeling the anger gives himself or herself permission to vent. Often, we mistakenly believe that venting will let some of the pressure off. Instead, the opposite happens. When we vent our anger, our anger continues to build, until it explodes in rage.
However, as Dr. James explains, road rage isn’t just limited to the epic road rage we’re all familiar with. Instead, there are three distinct types of anti-social behavior that he classifies as road rage:
• Passive-Aggressive road rage: “A passive form of resistance that is expressed by ignoring others or refusing to respond appropriately. The intent of passive-aggressive road rage is to be obstructionist and oppositional.” This obstructionist intent can be seen in the driver who adamantly observes the speed limit in the “fast lane,” despite the speeding drivers immediately behind who are signaling their desire to go faster by tailgating and flashing their lights.
• Verbal road rage: “The habit of constantly complaining about the traffic, keeping up a stream of mental or spoken attacks against all drivers, passengers, law enforcement officials, road workers, pedestrians, speed limits, and road signs. Undoubtedly the most common form of road rage, the purpose of verbal road rage is to denounce, ridicule, condemn, or castigate a rule, an engineer, or another driver.”
• Epic road rage: “The habit of fantasizing comic-book roles and extreme punitive measures against another driver, such as chasing, beating up, ramming, dragging, shooting, and killing, sometimes to the point of acting on it.” This is what most of us think of when we hear the words “road rage.”
As we saw in the incident in which with the SUV driver ran down the cyclist, the encounter began with the driver venting his anger at the cyclists on the road. But as we also saw, after venting his anger, the driver continued on his way down the road. It would have ended there, but something happened to further transform the driver’s vented anger into road rage: the cyclist chose to engage with the driver, motioning for the driver to come back. The cyclist had signaled his desire to continue the conflict, and the driver readily accepted the invitation—and that ended badly, and could’ve been even worse.
What should the cyclist have done instead?
Next week, I’ll explain how to deal with road rage, and how to do your best to keep the law on your side, and your hide intact when encountering dangerous drivers.
Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)