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What would you have done? A driver threatens my life on E 19th Ave

The scene of the crime, click to embiggen

Like most cyclists, I’ve had my fair share of close calls with car drivers.  Most of the close calls are accidental, comprising of left and right hooks, car doors, and similar things.  I usually just give a hearty “HEY HEY HEY!” and let those incidents go, thanking my lucky stars that my defensive biking skills saved my life, yet again.

Occasionally a driver tries to hit me or scare me.  I’ve been ran into a rock wall by a dump truck in eastern Oregon, ran into a guardrail and almost flipped off a bridge by a truck in Massachusetts, ran into a ditch in Iowa, and honked at and buzzed more times than I can count.  Those drivers were all trying to scare and possibly kill me, and no doubt felt perfectly justified in dehumanizing me.  However, it wasn’t until today that I had a chance to have a discussion with one of these guys right after he threatened me with his weapon of choice, a minivan.

It all began at a red light, facing East on 19th Ave at the 19th and Amazon Parkway/Pearl  intersection, where the Amazon Bike Path ends just past South Eugene High School.  I pulled up to the intersection behind another car and positioned myself squarely in the center of the lane so that the car behind me wouldn’t force me into the parked cars that were just past the intersection once the light changed.  The stretch of 19th between Amazon Parkway and Oak is narrow and full of parked cars, and the only safe way to cycle it is to take the lane.  Usually this isn’t a problem since it goes straight to another red light so no-one is in a hurry. I also usually bike the speed of traffic, so trying to pass me would be stupid.

Apparently the guy in the green van behind me didn’t like this.  The light changed and I began following the car in front of me. That car decided to drive as fast as they could to the red light, which created a space in front of me.  The guy in the green van behind me didn’t like this, and decided he wanted to beat me to the red light, despite me being smack in the center of the lane with parked cars only a few feet to my right.  He must have resented my presence, and he passed me at a high rate of speed and came within about 6 inches of hitting me.  He was clearly trying to send me a message.  I swerved away and punched the side back window of his van, but he was so close I couldn’t even extend my elbow to 90 degrees.  Of course he got stopped at the red light that he was racing towards, so I had a chance to have a conversation with him.  It went like this:

Me: What the hell was that?

Him: You are a bicycle you belong between the lanes.

Me: I’m a vehicle, I can legally ride in the center of the lane. You broke the law!

Him: No you can’t. You broke the law!

At this point other cars were being backed up behind our argument, and I was too angry to be civil.  I started to ride away.

Me: “You’re a piece of shit!”

Him: “No, YOU’RE a piece of shit!”

Me: “F*** You!”

and then I was gone making a right turn and he was still stuck at the red light that he raced me to.

I know that I didn’t handle the situation well, but I felt I did alright considering the guy almost killed me and threatened my life.  Things I should have said include “I’m not a bicycle, I’m a human being,” and “Just because you think I’m illegal doesn’t give you the right to hit me with your car.”  Cussing him out was probably a bad idea, but it felt pretty good.

For the record, some of the applicable laws for him are ORS 811.065: Unsafe passing of a person operating a bicycle because he didn’t allow me enough room in case I fell over, ORS 811.135 Careless Driving for driving in a way that was “likely to endanger any person or property”, and ORS 811.420 Passing in a no passing zone since it was a double yellow line.  There was no bike lane there so ORS 814.420 doesn’t apply, but ORS 811.425 Failure of slower driver to yield to an overtaking vehicle stipulates that I only need to move out of the way when there is an “area sufficient for safe turnout.”  There was no such space due to parked cars.  The Oregon Department of Transportation Bike Manual also instructs bicyclists to “take the lane” in situations like this to prevent unsafe passing:

From the ODOT Bicycle Manual (click to embiggen)

I feel that the driver should have broke some other laws as well, but as I’ve reported earlier, under Oregon and other state’s laws bicyclists lose their human status when they get on a bike, so laws like attempted assault and menacing don’t apply.  However, I see no difference between threatening me with a 2-ton van and pointing a loaded gun in my face.  There is absolutely no difference at all.  If I had moved left or he had made a mistake I would be severely injured or dead.  He wasn’t trying to just pass me – there was plenty of room – he was trying to send me a message.

So, what should I have done differently?  The “just” thing to do, which would be to match threat for threat, would have been to pull him out of his car and threaten to bash his skull in with my U-Lock. That is an equivalent threat to what he did to me.  Of course I would go to jail, and he would get no punishment at all, even though we would have done exactly equivalent things to each other.  I’m also non-violent and a realist, so that thought didn’t even cross my mind at the time.

Should I have ignored it and ridden away?  Should I have said things like “I’m not a bicycle, I’m a human being,” and “Just because you think I’m illegal doesn’t give you the right to hit me with your car?”  Should I have told him where to look up the laws?  Should I have called the cops and filed a report?  If cyclists were legally protected I would be able to report him and have him get a citation for menacing.

Until cars are considered lethal weapons, and hitting a cyclist is more than a civil offense, cyclists will be nothing but temporarily living roadkill in the eyes of the law.  Drivers will be able to threaten our lives, and kill us, at will.  Is it possible for guys like that to be reached through education alone, or do they need to be threatened in return?

I’m the last guy who’d want to ignite a cyclist vs driver war.  I drive sometimes, and most drivers in Eugene (at least in east Eugene) are great to cyclists.  I don’t believe in violence, and I don’t want to do anything that would drive a wedge through cyclist/driver relations.  I don’t even like Critical Mass.  However, I sometimes don’t know what to do.  I’m not a friggin’ bicycle or a deer, I’m a human being.

What should I have done?  What would you have done?

10 comments to What would you have done? A driver threatens my life on E 19th Ave

  • He was wrong, clearly. And you were right — up until the point when you smacked his car, and then you were wrong too.
    There was a post regarding an uncannily similar sitation today on bikeportland.org — but his encounter was with a much different kind of guy.
    I probably wouldn’t have said anything– I tend to ignore fools like that. But I’m not sure that’s a very effective thing to do either.

  • My justification for hitting his car was that if you are close enough that I can hit your car, you are too close. It was a self-defense “hey you are about to kill me, move over” smack.

    But you are right, violence isn’t the answer.

  • Tim

    I won’t try to claim I haven’t smacked the car of an aggressive driver from time to time — but it’s definitely not taking the high road. I try to remember that if any traffic confrontation ends up involving the police, in order to be the more sympathetic party I have to stay as respectful as possible.

    The guy was clearly a jerk, and an asshole, and dangerous. That’s why we need to be better than him.

  • After two incidents very similar to this my take away is to avoid the confrontation all together by riding away from the asshat in question.

    I was once threatened with a shovel at a stop light after being buzzed by two drivers in rapid succession and me giving them both the finger. I ended up being behind both of them at the next red light and I was set to just sit there like a good boy when he started yelling. I should have passed them both and turned illegally on red and avoided it.

    One other time a man sped up after me, he was turning right, I was going straight, when I touched his car after being startled. He cut me off and came out of his car, ready to fight.

    It’s not worth it. There is nothing you can do to change their mind.

  • Hans Kuhn

    This post on bikeportland has some excellent suggestions in the comments section:

    http://bikeportland.org/2010/04/28/middle-fingers-dont-lead-to-productive-dialogue-and-other-lessons-from-a-road-rage-interaction/

    I’m really sorry that this motorist threatened your life. Thanks for sharing your experience. I think that raising awareness of this problem can’t hurt.

  • Eric Weinstein

    If I can offer a lesson from Los Angeles, where there are a lot more of those “hostile” drivers: Dr. Thompson made a habit of harrasing cyclists on Mandeville Canyon Road – a place where you have to take the lane frequently. He was convicted, in no small part, by multiple reports of his atttempt to “teach cyclists a lesson”.

    I’d recommend filling a police report (complaint) including the licence number and description of the driver when you are harrassed like you describe. Dr Thompson eventually hurt some cyclists, and the record of complants help greatly in convicting him. You may not be the one who gets a conviction, but you’ll help the next cyclist.

  • Japhy

    I like Eric’s suggestion. I’d even take out my cell phone and snap a photo of their license plate. If they ask, then you can go into the whole, “you broke the law” discussion followed by, “well. I have your license plate number and will report it to the police.” Lawful, polite, effective. But they still will be steamed at you.

  • Publish the license plate, car type and color along with your story.

  • Kevin

    I agree with Ian – I think publicly shaming dangerously aggressive drivers is a good start.

  • Paul

    As long as you’re taking a photo, take a photo of the driver as well. It’s legal, as he or she is on public property without any reasonable expectation of privacy. It’ll also piss ‘em off even more.