Bob from Granite Bay, CA writes:
My question: with all of your years of experience, how do you control your temper when a motorist comes a bit too close to you while riding? Especially when it appears to happen intentionally? or if non-intentionally, it occurs when the opposing lane is clear of vehicles for the car traveling in the same direction as you? If the lane is clear, is it asking too much for the driver to move 2-3ft to the left? What is your secret? is it your cool and level-headed personality that prevents you from presenting the universal hand-signal? the common sense that prevails when you know how easily a 5000lb vehicle can snuff out anyone in a split second--that it's best to keep your pie-hole shut and both hands on your handlebars?
I honestly try to keep a cool head whenever this happens to me, but I sheepishly admit that I am only successful maybe 20% of the time. I am certainly not proud of it and typically feel worse afterwards even though no bodily harm has occurred. Thanks for any advice. In the meantime, I'll be searching for a 7-step plan......
You ask a great question, and bring up a situation that anyone who rides in the world is all too familiar with. I'm not 100% successful in always keeping my cool in stressful situations, but I do keep trying to get my percentage higher, so maybe we can do a bit to up your success rate above 20%. Remember, you're already part way there. 20% is better than 0%.
Experienced cyclist and good, mellow guy Russ Roca wrote eloquently about this dicey situation earlier this year in his article Inside an International Bike Incident. Russ does a great job of describing the situation, the rage of the driver and his own rage at the time.
In the heat of the moment, we react, just like anyone else who cares about their life or their loved one. It’s a basic human instinct. We generally keep our cool, but there was obvious malice in his driving, and we threw our arms up in a “why’d you do that” gesture.
It is not a proud moment when, as a bike advocate, you lose your cool, but I did. Finger gestures where made, to which the driver returned the same. This is where some “blame the victim” usually creeps in and people will no doubt say that I somehow brought this whole incident upon myself, conveniently disregarding the fact that just moments before someone driving two tons of steel had threatened us with bodily injury. This point has always bothered me when I’ve read these sort of stories myself. The cyclist is suppose to not react, to be a Ghandi-esque figure at all times, not registering any discontent at the fact that two tons of steel was just maliciously steered at them with impunity. Forgive this cyclist for being imperfect and human.
As Russ notes, we are humans. Imperfect.
A while ago my friend Mark Vande Kamp had a similar close call resulting in escalating finger gestures followed by a busted bicycle and a trip to the ER. As you noted, as bike riders we're the fellows with the knives at the gunfight, so escalation is probably not the wise course of action.
But we're human, imperfect, and we often react not with logic but adrenaline. Logic and experience tells us finger gestures and shouting will do little to make the other fellow see the error of his ways but those may be our default behaviors. The problems then, is to change or channel our defaults.
I have one suggestion for changing the default that may help a bit and one trick that has worked great for me. I'll get to the trick in a minute, but here's the suggestion:
We're all humans. Imperfect. Russ said it and it's true. You're imperfect and so is the asshole driver. Their imperfection is probably not something you're going to fix right there, right now on the road. The odds are good you're not going to fix all your imperfections either.
Like that temper of yours. For my temper, I try to channel it. Instead of flipping somebody off, I flip the ringer on my bike bell. It's ridiculously useless against the driver that just buzzed me, but it keeps my fingers busy. Like chewing gum instead of smoking.
But here's the big trick: Fake it.
When I was in college I first learned about Buddhism and enlightenment. One of aspects of Buddhism I found most interesting was the idea of the Bodhisattva, "a being that compassionately refrains from entering nirvana in order to save others." The idea of achieving the ultimate understanding of the universe, having the ability to break free of the endless cycle of birth and death and then saying "No thanks, I'll stay here and help others get across" seemed far more awesome than enlightenment itself.
And then I had my own bit of enlightenment in the form of a question: if an enlightened Bodhisattva is admirable, is a non-enlightened being, behaving in the same manner, just as admirable?
OK, you think weird things when you're a college philosophy major. But if you're lucky you live through it and it helps you live a pretty damn good life.
Here's my point. I wanted to live in a calmer, less angry world so I fake being calmer and less angry. I took Bon Jovi's advice and when the world got in my face I'd say "Have a Nice Day."
And you know, it's the damnedest thing. It works.
I'm not 100% successful, but I'm one of the calmest people I know. Kurt Vonnegut explained it well, "Be careful what you pretend to be because you are what you pretend to be." Smart fellow that Mr. Vonnegut.
Fake it until you make it.
Thanks for writing.
Have a nice day.
Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA