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On Biking: Trying to deal with rude drivers

Posted by Swati Gauri Sharma  April 22, 2011 04:47 PM

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The second Sunday in April was sunny and warm, a perfect day for a bicycle ride. It was the kind of early spring weather that helps you forget about our long, cruel winter.

That morning I was traveling eastbound on Beacon St., just before Cleveland Circle. I pedaled slightly to the left of the bike lane so I could avoid the cars that were parked half-way in the bike lane.

That’s where my perfect ride went bad.

As I approached the intersection of Beacon St. and Chestnut Hill Ave I checked my helmet mirror. I noticed a black VW Jetta coming up from behind. I swung a bit to the right to give that car some extra room to pass me by.

I heard some yelling and checked my mirror again. This time I saw an arm swing out of the front passenger window and start waving up and down. I pulled over even further to the right.

As that Jetta passed me there was more yelling and gesturing towards me. They drove close enough to scare me, far enough away not to hit me. I was glad I had a my mirror so I could see it coming.

At the stop light I pulled up next to them. Normally I try not to get angry at motorists. It won’t change their behavior and it usually only escalates things. But their idea of having a little fun at my expense triggered in me a fight or flight response. As best as I can tell, they weren’t intending to hurt me, just to mess with me. I don’t believe anyone in that car hoped I would be startled and crash, though that’s exactly what could have happened.

The G-rated version of what I said was that they could have caused an accident.

When I finished venting, the guy who waved his arm at me looked me in the eye and apologized. He was a big, 20-something-year-old guy who outweighed me by at least 50 pounds. “Sorry,” he said. I think he really meant it.

That would have been the end of it, except that one of the passengers in the back seat had to add his two cents. He told me: “But you need to ride in the bike lane.” As if by riding in the street (which was both legal and in this case, safer than staying in a bike lane that had become a parking lane) I had caused their bad behavior.

Unfortunately I responded with another fusillade. I told them why I don’t have to ride in the bike lane and why what they did was both not cool and not safe.

As the light turned green I pedaled off, angry. They drove off yelling something I’m glad I could not hear.

What do I wish I had happened?

I wish I hadn’t ranted at them like a hothead. My goal was to change their behavior, but venting wasn’t the way to do it. Had I been calm I could have said something like, “That’s not safe. I know you didn’t mean to cause an accident, but you could have. You wouldn’t want to hurt a cyclist and have to live with that.”

The good news is that Boston is increasingly a safer and more civil place to bike. This kind of stuff happens, but in my experience it’s less common than it was just a few years ago.

In a perfect world, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians will all know and respect the rules of the road. Those rules make it safer and less stressful for everyone.

In a perfect world, city planners will make sure that there’s more infrastructure for safer transit: bike paths, bike boxes, more public transportation, and slower speed limits. Tighter enforcement of those rules for everyone would also help.

In the meantime, let’s all try to do our part to share the road, to follow the rules, and to treat each other with kindness and respect.

Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.

Readers: what are your suggestions to make the streets of Boston a little less mean?

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