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:
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?