Why Cyclists Need to Start Fighting Back

A cyclist’s run-in with motorists in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has us thinking that it’s time for cyclists to start fighting back on the streets.

We named Chattanooga one of our best towns to live in. But how safe is it for cyclists?    

Stories of altercations between motorists and cyclists have become so common lately that they've almost become easy to overlook. Almost.

Despite their frequency, these episodes still upset me. And ones like this recent incident in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where the cyclist wasn’t just bullied but was also vilified afterwards, especially infuriate.

Chattanooga’s Times Free Press has a thorough summary of the incident, but here’s the skeleton account.

A 30-year-old Chattanooga rider, Anders Swanson, recently went for a ride on Raccoon Mountain, a road ride that is frequented by cyclists. On the way up, a Chevy truck with two teenagers inside buzzed Swanson, menaced him, and blasted an air horn. Swanson documented the incident with his camera, filed a report with the authorities, and continued on his way. Not long after, when he had finished his ride and was changing in the parking lot, the teens returned with two more friends in a different vehicle, harassed Swanson, and doused him with pepper spray before fleeing.

Swanson called the police again and filed another report. The Chattanooga police found the teens, received a confession, and were ready to press charges. But before that could happen, authorities transferred the case to another police precinct because it occurred outside Chattanooga jurisdiction. Somehow the tables suddenly turned. The police told Swanson he would be prosecuted for felonies because he posted images of the teen’s car to Facebook. The teens suddenly claimed he had assaulted them, reached in their car, banged on the bumper, and yelled profanities. Swanson went from victim to villain.

I didn’t witness what transpired on Raccoon Mountain. However, Swanson filed two reports that day and the teens filed none. Does anyone really believe he assaulted them?

Beyond the fact that Swanson documented what happened and should therefore have the law on his side, common sense falls in his favor too. We’re talking about a 146-pound man in skimpy clothing and all-but-impossible-to-walk-in cycling cleats on a 20-pound bicycle versus multiple people in 5,000-plus pound vehicles. If you’ve ever ridden a bike, you know how unlikely it is that you could scare or threaten a motorist. You're on constant defense.

What angers me most is that these episodes happen all the time. Laws or no laws, as Dan Duane pointed out in the New York Times last fall, these cases are inevitably biased against cyclists. “We do not know of a single case of a cyclist fatality in which the driver was prosecuted, except for D.U.I. or hit-and-run, ” Leah Shahum, the executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, told Duane. Cases involving altercations between bicyclists and motorists are almost always decided in favor of the motorists because that’s how our society is trained.

Too many cyclists transgress the rules of the road—blowing stop signs and lights, zipping across lanes and confusing cars in the process, not signaling—but still expect fair legal treatment. That’s important. If bikes are to be treated like vehicles, we have to act like them. I usually implore cyclists to be good citizens, obey traffic laws, and to be blameless on the road so that when incidents occur they have the law on their side.

But that’s not what this story is about. This is about a cyclist who was accosted while obeying the laws, but isn’t being afforded protection. This is about drivers who hit, and even kill, cyclists, but don’t get prosecuted to the full extent of the law. This is about cyclists—fathers and mothers, daughters and sons, you and me—standing up and saying enough is enough.

These are our roads, too. We pay taxes and have just as much right to use them as anyone. Sure, some cyclists disregard the highway rules. But so do some drivers, and that doesn’t make it okay to ignore, intimidate, and hit them. Cyclists must demand to be treated fairly on the roads.

A few weeks ago, on the east side of Phoenix, my wife and I were in a small lot getting ready for a mountain bike ride. A Chevy Tahoe full of teens drove into the lot, idled 50 feet away from us for five minutes, and eventually pulled alongside us. They made a few distasteful comments before spinning out and peppering us with gravel. A few minutes later they drove back by the lot, eyeing us, and we realized that we probably shouldn’t leave our car unattended while we rode. So we loaded up and moved it down the road to a more public space. I briefly considered calling the police. I had the license plate number and a good description of a couple of the kids. In the end, though, I shrugged it off and opted to go ride.

We do that too often. Nobody wants a fracas—we’re out on our bikes to enjoy ourselves. But next time I’ll take a few minutes to call it in. I will photograph the plates of the cars that menace me, and I will report every altercation I have with motorists. I have no way of knowing whether the authorities will treat me fairly or whether they’ll discriminate against me, like they did with Anders Swanson. It doesn’t matter. It’s time to make drivers accountable. And the only recourse we have is to ride well and report when drivers don’t do the same. It’s time to make a stand.

Keep riding, enjoy the experience, and most of all be careful out there.

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