Drivers Versus Cyclists: Are We Really Enemies?


by Zachary Rynew

Drivers vs. Cyclists: Are we enemies?

You’re at a party. Enjoying a nice beer. Kicking back with some friends. Eating caviar, escargot or whatever people dine on nowadays.

Then somehow it comes up. You’re a cyclist. Next thing you know, you’re defending yourself from both the Inquisition and Salem Witch Trials combined!

Why do you run lights? Do you drive on the wrong side of the road too? How come you don’t stay all the way to the right? You must like wearing silly clothes?

We’ve all been there. The stereotyping, crazy accusations and condescending language. It wears you out more than Fake Plastic Trees hamper Thom Yorke.

Even though we have perfectly logical answers, it gets tiresome having to defend yourself all the time. It’s as if we’re seen as a separate class of people like we’re residents of District 9.

This is a chasm that has been dividing us for quite some time. While cycling participation has been steadily going up, anger seems to be on a similar trajectory because there’s more of us out there. There will be a tipping point where there’s enough cyclists on the road that drivers will have to recognize us as equals, but until then here are a few ways to help the cause.

Don’t be afraid to engage with drivers

It’s strange how unprepared people are about being spontaneously confronted whether in a positive or negative manner. I find that people react more on how your demeanor rather than the content of your words.

When I’m stopped next to a driver at a light, sometimes I’ll try striking up a conversation. I focus on it being light-hearted and simple in case the person happens to be a moron, but mostly I’ll ask a car related question so they get the idea that I may be a driver too and not just the enemy. If we humanize ourselves out there, the more likely we’ll get others to relate to our cause.

Even while you’re cycling, make sure to acknowledge drivers when they let you cut in or wave you through. You want to reward their behavior and leave a positive impression to be applied to the next cyclist. Be sure to respond with a smile and recognizable hand wave.

Of course, use all available fingers on your hand.

Abide by traffic laws

It’s always important to follow the rules of the road. When you break them egregiously, you can simply erase all the goodwill you’ve built up.

Last week, I was on my weekly ride with a few riders new to our group getting some good speed up a climb. Sure enough, we got a red light that was going to put a dent in our Strava times.

We were in a low density suburban area, so the newbies thought they could barrel right through. Sure enough, a car properly was turning on their green light and almost nailed them. The rest of us had properly stopped, but received a lot of cross looks and head shaking from the drivers next to us.

It would be one thing if we were cheering them on and shooting guns in the air to run that red light, but we were pretty angry at them ourselves. And like that, the majority of the law abiding group ended up taking the vitriol that was stewing from our automotive counterparts.

Is it wrong to prejudge an entire group for one’s actions? Yes, but we all do it. Until the world learns to make opinions on face value alone, let’s set an example for other riders and save the headache.

Clarence Darrow you’re not

There are many good explanations why everyone benefits from cycling. Conversely, there are also a great number of people weened on car culture that are obstinate to any reasoning whatsoever.

You can point to the health benefits, freeing up parking spots, helping businesses, and building community, but you’ll always run into those who’ll hear none of it. It can be frustrating when combating these irrational arguments with actual facts cause an even greater divide. Anger levels tend to rise and the next thing you know you’re making your case with language as colorful as Van Gogh paintings.

Bottom line, you’re not going to make any progress taking this route. You’ve reinforced their thinking that cyclists are radical hotheads and the target on your back just got a lot bigger.

I find my role in these conversations is not to go for the full fledged conversion, but to break the ice. My method is to listen, agree to some of their points and then relate it to the perspective of a cyclist. I may not seal the deal, but if approached enough times these people will start to get the point.

Strength in numbers. If not, go screw yourself.

Take care of your own

The greatest thing about cycling is the community you form. No matter your age, ability or bike of choice, every cyclist is aware of each other.

Before I started riding, whenever I saw two cyclists wave at each other, I just figured them to be acquaintances. When it first happened to me riding, I guessed it was a case of mistaken identity (some people think I look like DB Sweeney). It happened again the next time out and I knew the fix was in.

I assessed my options and responded in kind. It felt weird at first, but I got the hang of it. Before I knew it, I became a habitual waver and started to brush my teeth more to show off my pearly whites. When cyclists have this type of interaction, others notice. It happened to me and it will with others.

No matter what your interest, it feels good to be part of a group. Cycling goes a bit further because it’s not just an activity you do with others, but a form of transportation as well. This leaves a multitude of ways to express yourself, yet we all have the commonality of using the same road.

It is also something we share with drivers. Should it be so different?

Zachary Races/Commutes/Crashes bicycles on a daily basis. He also writes for the Los Angeles blog and can be followed on Twitter @AcrossLA.