I was pedaling up Corey Rd. in Brighton earlier this summer to get to the start of a Tuesday evening group ride. If I didn’t have a mirror on my helmet I might not have seen that brand new Mercedes swerving toward me. I don’t think the driver noticed me as she sped past while staring at her cell phone. Had she been a bit more to the right, I might have been toast.
When I caught up to her at a stop light I asked her to be more careful. “You almost hit me,” I said. She stared at me. “What are you doing on the road in the first place? You’re riding a bicycle. Get back on the sidewalk.”
This kind of road rage isn’t new, it just seems that recently it’s been ratcheted up a notch. There are more riders and drivers out there trying to share a road that hasn’t gotten any wider. As a result, we’re all feeling a little overcrowded and stressed.
Friends, family and even fellow bikers all tell me that cyclists are the cause of this stress. Some of this blaming of bikers is territorial: drivers are used to owning, not sharing the road. Each biker is an intruder and triggers a fight, not flight response.
Also, we’ve all seen bikers go the wrong way on one-way streets, not stop at red lights, and weave in and out of traffic. But The Myth of the Scofflaw Cyclist makes a compelling case that all this blaming of bikers does not line up with the facts. Still, those facts don’t keep us from believing what we want to believe.
Steve Miller, a researcher at Harvard’s School of Public Health, says “we’re in the midst of a lot of change and uncertainty.” I ask him what that has to do with biking. “A lot,” he answers. “Bicycles offer an easing of much of what ails us. They’re good for the environment and they decrease our dependence on oil. They’re also a great way to fight obesity, which in turn cuts into our out of control health care costs.”
“Bicycles,” Steve adds, “are also fun to ride. But getting on board with biking means letting go of the way things are. Which is never easy.” As Steve puts it, “that kind of change doesn’t happen until it has to happen.” In the meantime, every bike becomes a lightning rod for our fears about the future. “In the long run bikes will be part of the solution,” Steve believes, “but for now we’re often seen as the cause of the problem.”
So what will make all of this road rage better? Two things: acting locally and thinking globally. MA Bike’s Same Road Same Rules program covers the local part. It’s about knowing and following the rules and being a good citizen, civic virtues that are always in style.
And the global part? It’s the cultural and infrastructure changes that are needed to support better behavior from all. If George Mitchell could broker peace in Northern Ireland, I think we can solve this problem, too, though not overnight.
In the meantime, there is plenty each of us can do. If Oprah can have a ‘no-cell phone while driving’ pledge, I think we can have a ‘share the roads nicely’ pledge. I’ve asked a number of friends, both bikers and non-bikers, what they think will help. In no particular order, they told me:
1. Do not run red lights. Ever. It’s not safe, it’s against the law, and it really ticks people off.
2. Do not salmon (riding against the flow of traffic). See above.
3. Calling all police officers: please enforce the law. Hand out tickets, lots of them, to all
users of the road who break the rules.
4. If you’re biking, wear a helmet. Enough said.
5. Use your indicator when turning and yield to all oncoming traffic.
6. Don’t yell or beep your horn when you pass a cyclist and give them some extra space: they really are allowed to be on the road.
7. Pedestrians: walking into oncoming traffic or crossing when cars have the green light slows things down and isn’t very safe.
8. No headphones: if you’re riding that means you can’t hear what’s around you.
9. If you pass another cyclist or a pedestrian, call out “on your left.” It lets them know you’re there and makes things safer.
10. Always use front and rear lights when you bike at night. It’s the law and it’s safe.
I know this list is incomplete, but I think it’s a good place to start. If all of us followed these rules we’d be a lot safer and much less stressed.
So how about it, fellow users of the road: are we up for the challenge? The alternative is a long, hot, angry summer.
Jonathan Simmons is a Brookline psychologist and avid cyclist.
Readers: what are your suggestions for how bikers, drivers and cyclists can make our streets safer?