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Column: The war between bicyclists and motorists

by Writers on RangeBill Schneider
| October 22, 2009 12:00 AM

Most motorists courteously and safely share the roads with cyclists, but then there are all the obnoxious others, the ones who fill with rage when they see anybody on a bicycle on the road ahead.

They not only think cyclists have no right to use public roadways, they also like to show their anger by shouting obscenities, giving the universal salute, blaring their horns, passing only inches from handlebars and even throwing beer cans and other objects.

Every time I experience or hear about this dangerous behavior, I ask why? What causes this incredible anger that makes drivers do things that could not only kill somebody, but also destroy their own lives?

A few weeks ago, I asked all the drivers who read an online column I write to tell me what was going on. I got an earful, though I had to weave my way through some long accounts of nasty road encounters.

The primary reason cited for motorists’ bad behavior was – and this is perhaps not surprising – the bad behavior of cyclists themselves.

They’d seen cyclists riding rudely or dangerously, and once that happened they never forgot it, henceforth painting all cyclists with the same brush.

I had already acknowledged this problem. I’m a rider, and I know that some cyclists – again, a tiny minority, I believe – throw gasoline on the fire by ignoring traffic rules, unnecessarily inconveniencing motorists and letting their self-righteous attitude shine through their Spandex. And, it seems, miscues by motorists like speeding, yapping on a cell phone or rolling through stop signs are somehow always more forgivable than lapses of judgment by cyclists.

One motorist admitted that he was furious when he saw a group of riders blow blithely through a stoplight, but added that, "When I hop on my bike, the tables quickly turn for me. I do not follow the same rules as cars … I may get hit someday. And if I do, I guess I'll deserve it.”

It's clearly up to cyclists to work at riding every mile like they're a goodwill ambassador for the entire sport, or as one cyclist said: “Ride as though the cop who is actively enforcing good traffic behavior among cyclists is right behind you every minute of your ride.”

One reason for drivers’ road rage involves something rarely discussed in America, and that’s class. People calling themselves blue-collar workers said they resented white-collar types who have to exercise after work. One admitted that "When I see cyclists, I see guys who don't have to work for a living; why else would they be out getting exercise in the evening when hard-working Americans are resting up for another day of hard work?”

Several motorists also complained about cyclists not paying gas taxes or bicycle registration fees. Riders protested: “Do they think that because we're on bicycles that we live in tents off the grid and pay no money into the economy?” Another added: “More people safely on bikes means happier, healthier citizens, and fewer cars on the road (so) the road lasts longer. You should pay bicyclists for the benefit they provide.”

Here’s a surprising fillip to the driver-biker debate: The drivers of cars and trucks sometimes behave like predators, with bicyclists assuming the role of prey. A rider explained, “I think there's a reaction to a bicyclist's vulnerability, a huge adrenaline rush to the possibility of killing somebody, that quickly turns into anger.”

Because cyclists rob motorists of “control,” said another, some drivers get vindictive and need to show cyclists who’s the boss.

Then, there's politics. The cycling community crosses all demographic and political lines, but some motorists only see liberal Democrats, and it's hard to deny a political undercurrent. A few road-raged, wolf-hating, flag-waving drivers see cyclists as gay, Obama-supporting, bunny-hugging, anti-gun pagans who don't even dress like “real men.”

I’ve called road rage against bicyclists un-American because I believe we live in a country where people are taught to respect everybody's rights – including the right to ride a bicycle on a public roadway. But one cyclist strongly disagreed, saying, “The aggressive behavior towards cyclists on our roads is quite American. I'm from Europe, and I don't see this ugly side of humans towards cyclists anywhere else other than in America.” He explains this as some kind of “warped need to ‘get mine’ at the expense of others.”

So what do you think? Is road rage directed at cyclists un-American or is it uniquely American?

(Bill Schneider is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is the travel and outdoor editor for NewWest.Net )