Five cyclists were on a country road when an SUV approached from behind. The driver blasted his horn as he buzzed the group. After he passed, one of the cyclists motioned for the driver to come back; the driver stopped and threw his SUV into reverse, smoking his tires back to where the cyclists had stopped. The driver and one cyclist began a heated exchange, with the driver informing the cyclist, who had been riding on the fog line along with the others, that he had no right to be “on my road.” When the cyclist disagreed, the driver said, “If I ever see you here again, I’ll run you over.”
The cyclist responded by hitting the side mirror, and said that the driver would need to talk with the police. Enraged, the driver backed up, aimed for the cyclist and knocked him to the ground before roaring down the road.
This incident, which took place outside Portland, Oregon, last winter, was a classic case of road rage, and fortunately, the cyclist survived with only a minor injury. Anybody who rides has had some sort of negative encounter with an enraged motorist—a blast from the horn, a shout to get off the road, a thrown object or a menacing swerve of the vehicle. Here is how to prevent that situation from becoming violent, and how to make the streets safer for all cyclists.
DON’T RETALIATE The cyclist almost always loses in tit-for-tat interactions with motorists. Not only do those in cars have the laws of physics on their side, they may also be able to rely on “plausible deniability” to explain away their behavior, calling what happened a mistake or misjudgment. “I didn’t see him,” is the most common driver explanation for hits and near misses of cyclists. If the driver buzzed you because he “didn’t see you,” or “didn’t realize he was that close,” it will be your word against his that it was intentional, and you will have a difficult time proving that you were assaulted—even if you saw him watching in his rear-view mirror for your reaction. On the other hand, the cyclist doesn’t have the same ability to explain away actions such as punching side mirrors. If you do something in retaliation, you could wind up looking like the instigator instead of the victim, and ultimately you will lose.
STAY SMART—AND WITHIN THE LAW You’ve been assaulted if a driver intentionally makes you feel as though you’re about to be hurt or injured; if you are physically attacked, the driver’s actions become battery. You have the right to defend yourself from unprovoked assault and battery— but only with the force necessary to repel the attack.
In other words, except for the very rare circumstance when you have no choice but to defend yourself physically, you should use the law, rather than force, to bring violent drivers to justice.
DOCUMENT INCIDENTS The most effective way to combat road rage is to report it to law enforcement immediately, providing as much information as you can—make, model and color of vehicle, plate number, description of the driver. If you have a camera phone, take photos; that act alone is often enough to scare the driver away. If your state has an aggressive driver hotline, enter the number into your cell phone so it’s there when you need it. If not, dial 911 after an incident; the dispatcher will connect you with the appropriate agency. Of course, the response from police will vary by jurisdiction and the evidence available. Often, it’s a matter of your word against the driver’s, and without confirmation from unbiased witnesses (i. e., not those in your paceline who also just got buzzed), law enforcement may not file charges.
Even if you can’t prove what happened, make the complaint call to create a record of the incident. Last year in Brentwood, California, a doctor swerved his sedan in front of two cyclists and slammed on the brakes, injuring both cyclists. The doctor claimed it was an accident. However, investigators learned that the doctor had done something virtually identical a few months before, and the cyclists had reported it. Although the first incident was treated as “his word against theirs,” the report of that encounter convinced prosecutors to pursue both cases.
Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J. D