There was a time when I subscribed to the notion that regardless of whether we’re driving cars or riding bikes we’re all human beings, and that ultimately we can all get along.
Nevertheless, we’ve all got to use the same roads whether we like it or not, and while we may never become allies we can at least hope for a détente. The thing is, as the operators of the larger and more powerful pieces of machinery, the onus for this falls upon the motorists. Fortunately, as a driver, there’s one simple rule of thumb that can take us all 90 percent of the way there:
Never say anything to a cyclist while you’re driving.
Look, I know how tempting it is. Driving makes you feel imperious, so it’s only natural that you’re inclined to roll down your window and issue forth edicts and demands from your sedan chair. I also realize this sounds rude and anti-social. Quite the contrary: there’s simply a time for concentration and a time for conversation. It’s the same reason kids can’t talk during class but they can at recess.
Plus, when you seal yourself inside of a car it’s you who’s choosing to isolate yourself from society, not everyone else.
Even when a motorist’s intentions are benign, the truth is that no worthwhile driver/cyclist interaction has ever been initiated from within the confines of an automobile. Here are some of the more common categories under which these communications fall, from the (seemingly) innocuous to the outright hostile, and why we’re all better off without them.
Asking for Directions
Just read the comments on any bicycle-related editorial and you’ll see that people are not shy about expressing their disapproval of cyclists. However, there’s one thing they’re even less shy about, and that’s asking us for directions. People may hate us most of the time, but when they’re lost suddenly we’re the dove returning to the ark.
I’m always willing to help out a stranger (unless they need my assistance in disposing of a body), but what drivers don’t realize is that there’s almost no way to ask us for directions without putting us in an uncomfortable or downright dangerous situation. When you hold up traffic to ask us how to get someplace you make the drivers behind you impatient, and there is no greater threat to a cyclist’s well-being than a bunch of impatient drivers.
Due to this, I’ve officially adopted a “no directions for drivers” policy. On foot? On a bike? Riding a unicycle while juggling? I’ll do my very best to put you back on course. But if you stop in traffic and ask me directions from your car I will simply reply “I dunno.” In previous decades this might have been selfish behavior on my part. However, it’s 2018, and we all have phones now. You know phones—they’re those things drivers are always looking at instead of the road. Well, in addition to sending and receiving texts, these phones can also communicate with satellites to tell you exactly how to get places. So if you’re lost, instead of stopping a cyclist, simply pull over and safely take advantage of this incredibly useful feature.
Words of Encouragement
Not all drivers hate cyclists. In fact, some even find us entertaining, so much so that they occasionally feel compelled to cheer us on while we’re riding. At one time or another we’ve all found themselves grinding up a long, steep climb, only for a passing driver to roll down the window and shout something like, “Keep going!” or “Almost there!” or some other inspirational phrase that sounds like it came off a cat poster.
You may mean well, but don’t do this. Really, don’t. I know it looks like we’re suffering, and on a superficial level maybe we are, but the truth is we like to ride up hills. As soon as we drop it into the little ring we feel like Ewan McGregor sinking into the carpet in “Trainspotting.”
When we’re climbing, we’re someplace else. Maybe we’re stomping our way up the Alpe d’Huez and into the maillot jaune. Maybe we’re riding a unicorn over a rainbow. Or maybe we’re just clearing our heads after a difficult day. Whatever the case, your goofy “You can do it!” takes us out of that moment and puts us into a game of pee-wee soccer, which is not where we want to be.
Words of Concern
In addition to cheering us on, some drivers feel compelled to tell us to be careful—particularly women cyclists, or cyclists riding with children. “Don’t you worry about the drivers?,” one driver asked me as she pulled up alongside me while I rode with my toddler in the kiddie seat.
Of course I worry about drivers, but I feel a hell of a lot safer carrying my child by bicycle at 8 miles per hour in the neighborhood than I do transporting him by car at 60 miles per hour on the New York State Thruway, and I’m fairly confident the statistics bear this out. That notwithstanding, my confidence in drivers wanes considerably when they take their eyes off the road to talk to me, so if you’re really concerned for our safety then the best thing you can do is refrain from talking to us and give your full attention to the road.
Drivers usually don’t mind insulting us outright, but one trick the less confrontational among them use is hiding that insult inside of a compliment, which is like feeding your dog a pill wrapped in bacon. For example, while I was waiting at a light recently a driver pulled up next to me and said, “Thank you for stopping.”
I knew right away where he was going with this.
“Thank you for stopping,” I replied.
I’d revealed the pill in the bacon and his tone became more pointed:
“A lot of you guys don’t stop.” Ah yes, finally, his chance to tell off one of those darned cyclists.
“A lot of you guys don’t stop either.”
This was not going the way he’d planned.
“But we get ticked for it,” he declared indignity.
This is an absurd statement in New York, where the fine for running a light on a bicycle is $190 and the ticket blitzes are frequent and merciless. More absurd however is that he’s holding a total stranger accountable for the behavior of other cyclists. I’m sure he’d be similarly annoyed if I followed him to his destination and thanked him for not double-parking.
More importantly, this interaction underscores the main reason drivers shouldn’t address cyclists: they don’t have any idea what they’re talking about. See, most cyclists are also drivers, but the sort of driver who confronts a cyclist generally hasn’t thrown a leg over a bike since the fifth grade. So the car becomes a bully pulpit for the ignorant.
I shouldn’t have to point out that drivers should stop threatening us and insulting us. However this is the current mode of public discourse from the president on down so perhaps it warrants mentioning. Anyway, if you hate cyclists all you have to do is pass them safely and watch them disappear in your rearview mirror.
Oh, and take a glance at yourself while you’re at it. If cyclists make you so angry maybe it’s not us you hate.