Monday, July 14, 2008

Road Rage Does Not Become the Gentleman

This shocking LA Times article caused quite a stir in the bike-blogosphere. The Gentleman donates his two cents.

A 59-year-old motoring doctor (yes, a doctor) got in an altercation with two cyclists as they drove and rode respectively down Mandeville Canyon Road in Los Angeles. Apparently the man honked at the riders, then narrowly missed hitting them as he passed them, then veered in front of them and slammed on his brakes--sending one cyclist crashing through the rear window of his red Infinity and the other tumbling to the side of the road. According to the article, authorities believe that the man, Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson, may have been responsible for an identical hit-and-run incident months earlier. Of course, these were cyclists of the lycra-clad, carbon-fiber variety riding side by side down a very fast road at very high speeds, but the story is tragic and even those more casual riders among us can relate.

I'm sure many of you cyclists have experienced enraged motorists. So it is easy to imagine this tragic scenario. Dealing with infuriated drivers is a truly frightening experience. It is easy to react with malice towards the frustrated drivers, but I implore you all to remember your manners and appeal to the laws of decency. It is too easy to assume that all motorists driving luxury sports cars are hell-bent on running over cyclists, but it is simply not true. One bad apple. One truly rotten apple at that.

I have seen many younger cyclists in altercations with motorists in downtown San Francisco in my years as both a driver and cyclist. I can assure you, from both sides of the issue, that letting tempers fly NEVER produces a favorable outcome for you--because no matter how fast you are behind your steering-wheel or handlebars, your opponent will inevitably catch up with you at the next light.

Honking or driving too close to a nearby cyclist will hurt their ears (remember that your soundproof car muffles the volume of your horn, and pedestrians/cyclists get an earful) and may result in you having your windows or lights smashed at the next light. These are relatively safe times, but it happens. In certain cities you must also be aware that cyclists sometimes have posses--especially couriers-- and you could invite a lifetime of terror for yourself. Remember that starting the fight is never acceptable--and you should expect a retaliation if you make that mistake. This not to say you should retaliate if you are wronged. You should always be the "better man." Missing a traffic light is not such a big deal as it seems when you are speeding to make it. If you are in such a hurry to get where you are going, you should have left earlier, with time to spare.

The same is true for cyclists. If someone has broken the rules of road-decency and you have been wronged, do not catch up to the driver and spit on/through their windows or scratch their paint with your keys (as I have seen many do in my hometown of San Francisco) . Remember what Gandhi said: "An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind." Just grin and bear it. Turn the other cheek. Be the better man. Maybe your decency will rub off on the driver, maybe it won't. But leave the spitting and eye-jabbing to the thugs. And believe me, there are plenty of thugs out there hell-bent on ticking-off motorists, but they generally do more harm than good.

The problem is that driving and cycling in today's over-crowded, traffic-plugged society leads to the condition of "road rage." Cyclists are no exception. Put five cars and five bikes in the same traffic jam and I assure you everyone will be frustrated. The slow pace and inefficiencies of modern traffic are frustrating indeed. Time and energy wasted sitting behind someone else's exhaust pipe is time and energy wasted indeed.

This gentleman readily admits to getting quite flustered behind the wheel. That is why I forswore driving in favor of walking and cycling for around-town errands, and using my metropolitan area's public transportation for my weekday commutes. Commuting by car across the Bay Bridge and dealing with a 50-year-old bottleneck that just gets worse by the day made me angry before I even set foot in the office Monday morning. Add to that arriving home infuriated after a long drive of delays and you can imagine the stress that driving put on myself as well as my coworkers and family. What a terrible way to start and end the day! Despite my change in lifestyle and my embrace of trains for long-distance travel, I still find myself behind the wheel now and then when borrowing a truck for hauling or renting a car for an out-of-town trip. It is amazing how quickly I revert to my old road-raging ways just moving a piano from San Francisco to Berkeley! Or getting stuck in Bay Area traffic when I rent a car in an attempt to get away from Bay Area traffic!

Road rage is a fact of modern existence and I hate to say that like traffic, it doesn't seem to be getting any better. All you can do is attempt to avoid situations when road rage can harm you. Take alternate routes. Encourage your municipality to set up "Bicycle Boulevards" or at least bike lanes.

The real solution is, and this may be hard for die-hard motorists to swallow, less driving. Ask any city planner or transportation engineer and they will tell you that traffic NEVER gets better. It just gets worse and worse every year as the population grows, because more cars mean more congestion. Even adding lanes to existing freeways does little to solve the problem because backups will inevitably occur at every bottleneck. What can you do? Skip the rat race (the true gentleman has always been a non-conformist) and blaze your own path. This can be as easy as taking the bus over that same highway commute, but using your travel time to write a journal instead of fuming about the bad manners of the motorists around you. Or work close to home and eliminate the expenses and time you would otherwise be giving to oil companies and sitting in traffic.

I hope this reflection has been constructive. When tragedy strikes, the Gentleman always consoles his friends and family in any way he can.

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