Confessing my bike rage

It was fall, 2013 and I had just started my new job at the Bike Fed.

I was biking into work wearing my best suit because later that morning I needed to testify at a legislative hearing on – of all things – our vulnerable users bill.

As I turned into the new contra flow lane on East Main Street I noticed a delivery van moving in the opposite direction toward the angle parking ahead of me. The driver didn’t seem to notice me as he continued to turn across my lane.

As I braced for a collision I let out a shout and the van stopped inches from my back wheel. I stopped, turned around and approached the driver who had rolled down his window and was in the midst of an apology.

But I would have none of it. I yelled at him. I repeatedly used a vulgar word describing one of life’s most pleasurable experiences. I slapped the door beneath his window. In short, I was sort of a jerk.

The whole incident probably lasted all of thirty seconds. I biked the last two blocks of my journey and sat quietly at my desk, letting the chemicals in my body settle back to where they belonged.

And then I started to feel bad about the whole thing. Here I was in a new job representing cyclists and I wasn’t giving us a very good name, was I? So, I gathered myself up and walked the two blocks back to the scene of the crime, intending to find the driver and issue an apology. But he was already gone.

For those of you who have been through something similar you might be able to relate to what happened. Your adrenaline spikes. Nature has programmed us to quickly move blood out of the brain and to other parts of our body so that reaction is unclouded by thought. Seconds after almost being clocked, my brain was still not fully back in control. I reacted strongly and emotionally. It wasn’t pretty.

I think about this now because we’ve had quite a “robust” (my candidate for the most pretentious and over-used word of the decade) discussion here on the blog about the Madison road rage incident of last month.

In the discussion thread I tried to plead for a little understanding on both sides. Most other commentators wanted none of that. I was called spineless for even suggesting that the cyclist in that case was wrong to do some of what I did in my own incident three years ago. I responded that I deserved some respect because without a spine it is hard to even sit up and type.

So, for those of you who believe we should give the driver in that incident no quarter, well okay, I’ll drop the shovel now. It did not help my case that many of you know the guy and he has given his neighbors reason not to like him because of other incidents.

What I would like to hear is your reaction to what I did in my situation. It was somewhat different because the driver in my case held no malice; he just wasn’t paying attention. And the contra flow lane was relatively new. He probably wasn’t expecting a cyclist coming in the opposite direction.

But in my own defense I couldn’t be expected to process all that in the seconds before, during and right after the incident. And whether or not my bike lane was new, what of it? Drivers are in charge of deadly force. They have a responsibility to be alert.

So, was I right to give him hell for almost hitting me? Did the net result of that make him a lot more careful to watch out for us? Or did I leave him with a negative impression of cyclists that only made everything worse?

Was I right, once I settled down, to go seek him out and try to apologize or was I being spineless for doing so? If I had found him, what should I have said?

Let’s discuss. Robustly.

About Dave Cieslewicz, Executive Director

Dave Cieslewicz served two terms as mayor of Madison where he set the city on a path for Platinum status as one of the best biking cities in North America. Before that he started his own nonprofit, 1000 Friends of Wisconsin, which focuses on land use and transportation policy. He has been an adjunct professor at the UW Madison's Department of Urban and Regional Planning where he teaches a class called Bikes, Pedestrians and Cities. He pronounces his name chess LEV ich, but nobody else does.

11 thoughts on “Confessing my bike rage

  1. Our heightened alert status while riding the road has all of those chemical floodgates poised to blast open at the slightest provocation. In and around Madison, with all of the amazing trails, I find myself riding with far greater ease than when I have to venture out onto the roadways and “share the road”.

    In reality, I’m only “borrowing the road” because, all legislation aside, autos and trucks own the road and they just tolerate me. There’s some sharing going on, likely from other cyclists that have to be driving. So it’s no wonder we explode into rage when an infraction occurs.

    And when I am a driver, I find that the structure of the roadway system doesn’t lend itself to helping me remain aware of my brethren cyclists.

    I wish there was a simple answer – currently, I don’t think there is.

  2. The only time I’m going to come out against a cyclist is if they cause physical harm to the automobile driver with physical assault.

    Other than that, it’s up to each of us to determine who we want to be. Are you the kind of person that want’s to practice peace and forgiveness in all aspects of your life? Then you need to prepare yourself on how you will respond to this situation and respond with grace. And I would say that you are a stronger individual than I.

    If you are the kind of person who needs to yell and jump up and down (get mad) to speak your truth and make a point? – I’m not going to hold that against you nor think any less of you. We are human and we respond to threats to our existence.

  3. I think helping to teach motorists of the differences between bike commuters and recreational biking would be a start. What is taught to potential drivers? Are the new rules in the current tests? Do they talk about road rage in drivers ed? I see a LOT of room for growth on both sides of the issue here. Don’t just assume a driver ‘sees’ you or that they understand why you are out in the road. Unfortunately drivers seem less and less about the journey and more about the destination these days, so they will have none of ‘slowing down’ for almost anything. But as you can see in front of schools, the behavior changes and they stop for the cross walks, or else! This behavior has changed so I feel there is hope for education and understanding.

  4. When a bicyclist or pedestrian is endangered by reckless or inattentive driving, whether or not the offending multi-ton vehicle driver is nice or not, I believe it is imperative for the cyclist to make her/his interaction with that driver a memorable one. Smoke alarms do not squirt out the scent of daisies and emit delicate bluebird song. Emergency vehicles do not sound like the ice cream truck. Should a bicyclist be lucky enough to survive such an encounter with a motorized vehicle, that bicyclist has a duty to all the other cyclists who might one day meet up with that driver to make sure the driver doesn’t forget it. I am all for filming and exposing dangerous (to bike/ped) drivers, following and confronting them, leaving notes for them, pressing for charges against them. I don’t think such confrontations need to be threatening or mean, but they need to be forceful. Until our country and state provide safe bike infrastructure separate and distinct from motorized vehicle infrastructure and laws that favor and protect vulnerable cyclists and pedestrians, those who are able must take a stand for our whole community. That’s what I think. And I believe the aggressive Madison driver shown earlier should be charged for reckless driving and whatever else he could be charged with. What if this driver had been filmed behaving like this toward a child legally bicycling the (useless and dangerous, imo) sharrows or an elderly or disabled person slowly creeping across a street in a painted crosswalk? I don’t think anyone would be telling us to let him go on behaving like that toward others.

  5. When I was working as a bike messenger here in town I once had a driver on the square aggressively try to cross in front of me where it was unsafe to do so heading onto E Wash. I simply held my line and did not allow him to move over because it would’ve put me at risk. When he couldn’t take the space I was occupying he got extremely irate, pulled up next to me and told me that next time he was in town he was going to run me down with his car. Being a professional messenger, you are able to bounce back from this confrontation quickly because there is simply no choice, you must keep working however, I was incredibly upset that someone would so casually threaten to kill me for simply being in a place he wanted to be. This guy would not have been educated by me in any way and I’m pretty certain he had a gun on him. On the flip side, certain people who simply aren’t paying attention and err on the road can benefit from a little hood slap or a firm yet non-aggressive shout. They are not interested in hitting anyone and will take the experience to heart, knowing where to pay attention the next time. Some people are aware yet violent and they are to be avoided. Others are unaware and peaceable. This is a long way of saying that raging is a way to discharge pain to other people, but it’s not very effective at educating. Still, don’t be hard on yourself. Adrenaline is very potent.

  6. Dave,

    Great post. As someone who is often quick to anger, I’m inclined to be understanding of this urge to lash out, quickly and strongly, against this type of stimulus. I won’t cite any studies, but I’m pretty sure a strong “flight or fight” response is what has kept a lot of us and our ancestors alive over the years. Nowadays, I usually wait for a response before considering corrective language that is tempered by maturity.

    I’m willing to forgive your knee-jerk reaction at possibly being injured by someone not paying attention. I only have a 10 minute commute to work and even in that short time, there is always, ALWAYS someone who has their head somewhere else. I have the utmost respect for those who bike to work, but sometimes things called accidents happen. Hopefully, the person felt some remorse, realized that he needs to be paying better attention, and learned from the experience. Bonus points if he forgave you for losing it.

    Think about this: If the person who almost hit you was unapologetic, or even disrespectful, and you did not react strongly (although maybe with more tact), this person, or someone like him, doesn’t think about it later on, it doesn’t resonate. Days or weeks later he could just as easily experience a similar situation with a much worse result. Is there a risk of pushing someone to hate all cyclists? Sure, that is why you (should) consider each situation on an individual basis, and react in a way that will have the most effect, keeping your head if at all possible but without letting it temper a strong response (if indicated). If you did anything wrong, it’s that you did not give him an opportunity for apology and remorse.

    Advocates, like teachers, are not bound to practice what they preach; it is sufficient to know the difference between ignorance and knowledge, right and wrong, and preach truths. Not a single one of us is perfect, and nobody can expect us to be. A good teacher uses his past experiences as teaching points.

    Complacency is a terrible thing, possibly the worst of things. This is probably why several people reacted strongly to call out the “apology” from the road rager, and a few called you out for being complacent. If we come to a place where this person’s faux-pology is acceptable, we allow it to become the new normal, the new standard. Have you ever had to teach a small child to execute a “real” apology? It’s not natural! Usually it takes multiple attempts, corrective action (speak up, look him in the eye, etc), and then the end result probably still isn’t passable.

    If there’s no remorse, there needs to be a lesson. If there’s no lesson, there’s nothing learned. Whether we like it or not, we are all teachers, and simultaneously all students. Not only is what he said not even close to an apology, but he had ample time to cool off, think things through (unlike you), and still came up with that. Strong condemnation is warranted, because the alternative is complacency. The alternative is more road rage incidents. This goes well beyond cycling, too ;) .

    The bottom line is, just because there was an incident you felt bad about in the past, it doesn’t mean you should excuse poor behavior and what was really a very, very bad attempt at an apology. As a cycling advocate, even though you are not perfect, people still hold you to a higher standard. If you are truly trying to make Madison a better and safer place for cyclists and cycling, this is not done by leniency toward an aggressive and unrepentant driver.

    Illegitimi non carborundum

  7. “I yelled at him. I repeatedly used a vulgar word describing one of life’s most pleasurable experiences. I slapped the door beneath his window. In short, I was sort of a jerk.”

    Actions and words have consequences. You crossed the line slapping the door. If a motorist kicked your bicycle the hysteria here would be deafening. The cops would be involved, and the driver shamed & blamed here by your followers.

    “In the discussion thread I tried to plead for a little understanding on both sides. Most other commentators wanted none of that. I was called spineless for even suggesting that the cyclist in that case was wrong to do some of what I did in my own incident three years ago. I responded that I deserved some respect because without a spine it is hard to even sit up and type.”

    You’ve created an echo chamber here ( Anyone that does not tow the party line here is attacked ). You aren’t going to get any constructive criticism from most of your followers here.

  8. I attended a public hearing on a planned highway project, removal of a culvert replacing it with a bridge, that will straighten a curve and change lane widths from 10 feet to 17 feet. I noticed that the engineering plans offered no protections for vulnerable users. I requested that some be made and offered a few ideas. The reply from DOT was that my changes are not possible because: cost, time, standards. Asked if additional signage could be added simply to alert drivers to likely presence of vulnerable users. Same response from DOT.
    I think your anger is warranted but misdirected. You cite reasons to forgive the driver and I am convinced that these reasons are solid and valid. In our statutes every definition of road is qualified by vehicle. Our standards for road building are written to facilitate rapid movement of vehicles. Apparently we have even taken away Town rights to reduce speed limits on town roads to slower than 45 mph regardless of the desire of residents to protect vulnerable users.
    Rage on Dave. And when you next encounter a similar situation follow every one of your expletives with road engineers or DOT standards. When we design and build a transportation infrastructure that preferences vehicles over people we are screwed.

  9. Dave, your incident and the road rage incident from January are completely different. Yours sounds like what happens most of the time. A genuine accident from someone not paying enough attention. The road rage incident was completely intentional, meant to provoke a reaction by a mean-spirited bully.

    When someone threatens your life by accident, of course the best thing to do is calmly and peacefully inform the person what they did and hope that they learn from it. If a harsher reaction (like yours) happens instead I certainly wouldn’t hold it against you. It’s your life that was on the line, after all.

    It’s totally different when someone *intentionally* threatens your life, shouts at you, and pulls their car over to verbally threaten you again. To me, any reaction in that case is acceptable since it’s hardly different from pointing a gun at someone and yelling that you might fire.

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