Confrontations with strangers are a fact of life. Fortunately, most of these are relatively minor, and unless you’re Larry David, you’re unlikely to get into a heated argument with someone over an airplane seat armrest or a poorly-placed shopping cart. Some situations, however, can be considerably more fraught, like when you’re riding a bike and a driver almost kills you.
You don’t have to be a cyclist to almost get killed by a driver; you can be in your own car, on foot, or simply enjoying a donut. However, what’s unique about being on a bicycle is that you’ve got all the physical vulnerability of a pedestrian, yet thanks to the potent combination of a bike and the shot of adrenaline that accompanies nearly dying you’re also often able to catch up with and directly address your would-be assailant. And when someone plays fast and loose with your life, the impulse to do just that can be irresistible.
So should you?
Let’s just say you do yield to the impulse to confront a bad driver, and at the next red light you’re face to face with the piece of crap who almost hit you with their car. What do you do now? Well, as tempting as it may be to deck a homicidal trucker or wield your U-lock, then unleash a mighty bellow from atop the roof of an Uber driver’s Kia, we all know that violence is never the answer. (Well, almost never.)
Short of that, all that’s left to do is to say something, at which point your anger and your wits fight for control of your tongue. If the former wins then you simply hurl invective at the driver until you undergo some sort of catharsis and/or get punched in the face, and if the latter wins then you attempt to hit the driver with some piercing insight that you hope will instantly cause them to wither and apologize—kind of like that deadly joke from Monty Python, only in insult form.
Unfortunately, in real world situations, neither of these approaches is effective. No matter how justified, ultimately it’s never satisfying to fly into a rage; if anything, you just wind up feeling guilty and ashamed, like when you wake up on the couch covered in Cheetos after a Netflix binge. As for administering a devastating dressing-down with such surgical precision that the driver immediately questions all the life choices that led them up to this moment, no matter how clever you are, attempts to deliver the mot juste invariably backfire and leave you feeling even angrier.
To understand why this is true, put yourself in the mindset of a driver. Drivers almost kill you for one of four reasons, these being:
- They’re not paying attention;
- They don’t understand how to drive around people on bikes;
- They’re selfish and impatient;
- They’re actively trying to frighten or hurt you.
Alas, in every one of these scenarios the driver is virtually impervious to any sort of criticism. Consider the inattentive driver who cuts you off because they weren’t watching where they were going. For all their heedlessness, they really didn’t mean you any harm. However, when you grab their attention and exhort them to “Watch where you’re going!,” first they feel surprised, then they feel embarrassed, and then they become defensive and look for a reason why it wasn’t their fault, because this is how human nature works.
It may be infuriating, but if you’ve ever accidentally stepped on your cat, you understand the mental process. The yowl scares the shit out of you so you blurt out, “Stupid cat!,” and only later do you get around to feeling bad about it, because after all, lying in sun patches on the living room floor is just what cats do. This is why, instead of apologizing, the driver who almost merged into you says something stupid like, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going?,” and you just wind up even angrier, like the trodden-upon cat now seething under the bed.
As for the person who doesn’t understand how to drive around people on bikes, they may not be cutting you off on purpose exactly, but they also think what they’re doing is perfectly fine, which is just as bad. There’s really no way to educate somebody in the course of a brief interaction in the middle of traffic. If you try they’ll only make some inane excuse that pisses you off more (see Driver #1), and if you get angry they’ll dismiss you as one of those “entitled cyclists” because they think you’re being irrational. Basically, they’re petting the cat backwards, getting bit, and using that as the basis for concluding that cats suck.
From here it only gets more futile, since a person so impatient they’re willing to risk the lives of others with their car is clearly not going to listen to reason, and if you confront a driver who’s actually trying to hurt you then they’re only going to try to finish the job. The best possible outcome here is an encounter that leaves you even more shaken, and the demoralizing realization that some of the people you “share” the road with really do want you dead.
Sadly, this leaves only one viable option, which is to say nothing at all. While this may be hard to stomach in the moment, refraining from any sort of interaction is worth it for the fact that you won’t be nursing feelings of shame, anger, and disillusionment with the human race for the rest of the day. Nothing you say can stop people from cutting you off or idling in the bike lane or doing all the other shitty things they do, nor will it elicit any sort of contrition for them. But at least you always have the option of opting out of the disappointment that inevitably follows and instead channeling your anger into something that makes a difference, like pushing for better cycling infrastructure or advancing pro-bike ideas in a forum where people might actually be receptive to them.
Otherwise, there’s simply no reasoning with people when they’re behind the wheel of a car. We’re our worst selves behind the wheel, and as soon as we turn on the ignition we disable both our empathy and our ability to reason.