The gentleman in the commercial truck did not want to share the road with me.
My commute takes me from bike path to painted bike path. My interactions with motorists occur mostly at intersections, where the vast majority wave me across a stop sign or yield to my signal to merge into the traffic lane. It’s classic Minnesota nice; for the most part, people defer to cyclists. But there is one situation that vexes me. In taking stock of my most well-traveled routes, those places where I have to turn left are the places where a motorist has honked, shouted or threatened my safety in some way.
There is a particular intersection where vehicles from a commercial lot enter the road about 100 feet from the traffic light. One day I was signaling my lane change out of the bike lane, just as a truck was pulling onto it. But he did not yield, even though there is barely enough time to accelerate before stopping at the red light. I pulled ahead of him, anyway.
He was a little upset. The driver jumped out of the truck, shouting about my offense. “I KNOW THE LAW!” I wish I didn’t have to use all caps, but the guy was actually spitting. “YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO GET OUT OF THE BIKE LANE!” I asserted that, in fact, I’m allowed to take the lane. He disagreed. The light changed, we both turned left, and as I resumed my proper place in the bike lane, he passed me with more shouting and maybe an F-bomb. I waved at him (with all five fingers) as he passed.
That incident left me rattled, but the more I thought about it, the more I recalled similar interactions in other places. A pedestrian path goes through a hospital complex in the middle of the block, where there is no indication of a left turn other than my extended left arm. I hug the center line, allowing ample room for cars to pass to my right. A few motorists honk and shout, anyway. Or there was that time I was signaling a left turn from the traffic lane, when the motorist behind me swerved into the oncoming lane to pass me. That time, I’ll admit, my signal hand changed to a one-finger salute. Hey, he could have killed me!
All of those experiences point to one conclusion: A lot of motorists don’t like to see cyclists in front of them. But the truck spitter did have a point; I should know the law. We all should. So here it is, Minnesota statute 169.222, the law as it applies to cyclists.
I will highlight three things:
- First: “Traffic laws apply,” meaning cyclists have all the rights and duties of any other vehicle, except in places where bicycles are expressly prohibited. Also, a bicyclist can perform the neat little trick of pretending to be a pedestrian, and so they are also allowed on sidewalks and in crosswalks.
- Second: “Riding rules” decree that bicycles should stay as close to the curb as possible, except when passing other vehicles or obstacles or when turning left. Take that, Mr. Truck Spitter!
- Third: “Turning, lane change” says you are to use your left arm to signal a turn or lane change, for as long as you don’t need it on the handlebar.
Road Rage and Other Realities
Interactions between motorists and cyclists are all but unavoidable. Survey data suggest that, when considering cycling as a more primary form of transportation, people would prefer to be separated from vehicle traffic as much as possible. In fact, data suggest that people who do make the switch to street cycling give up, after a few too many exchanges such as the ones I describe above. Those road rage incidents make you feel so much more vulnerable, when you’re not in a metal and glass box that keeps you relatively safe.
I work with kids in a school setting. I spend a lot of time helping them cope with upsetting situations, especially involving other peers. Have you ever experienced a temper tantrum? That moment when a child goes berserk over some small trigger, is universal. There are lots of fancy names for that phenomenon, like “amygdala hijack,” when the fear centers of the brain (the amygdala and hypothalamus) take over the thinking and reasoning parts (the prefrontal cortex).
I prefer the superhero reference, the “Bruce Banner” moment, when Bruce gets really angry and transforms into a raging green monster. Kids are less skilled than adults in regulating strong emotions, but not much less skilled, as it turns out. Likewise, when kids on the playground retaliate over some offense, they are less skilled in de-escalating conflict, but not much more than adults. That’s what makes those traffic situations so volatile. It takes a fraction of a second for us to go from calm to Hulk, while we’re traveling at high speeds.
The hardest lesson to teach anyone over those playground squabbles or road disputes is that we have absolutely no control over other people’s actions, words or thoughts. “He started it!” never excuses retaliatory behavior. That goes for me, too. Our only recourse during a confrontation is to be aware of our emotional responses and behaviors. Knowing what I do about the Bruce Banner effect, I know I’m not likely to talk any Truck Spitter or Car Honker down by quoting Minnesota statutes.
If I find myself in that position again, I will take a deep breath, and say this to the angry motorist: “I understand you don’t want to see me here. I would be glad to discuss the law with you, as long as we can talk face to face safely. If you can do that, I will meet you over there in the parking lane.” That would probably be the end of it, unless he (it is rarely a “she”) is intrigued enough by my level-headed appeal to conversation. If so, I will do the “human thing”: introduce myself, ask for clarification of their concern, listen and demonstrate good faith. Then break out the statute.
We are all ambassadors. Cyclists have to demonstrate that we deserve to be considered “fellow travelers.” That means not only obeying traffic laws, but being generally considerate of others on the road, path or sidewalk. I can’t tell you how many times a pedestrian tells me in passing, “That’s the first time somebody announced themselves.” That’s both a compliment and an indictment.
Angry motorists probably also harbor some resentment from bad experiences with “those darn scofflaw cyclists.” But it also holds true for our perception of motorists who drive erratically, aggressively or negligently. We have to bear the burden of every arrogant, inconsiderate cyclist or motorist who came before us. All we can do to change other people’s behavior is to model how to use the road the right way.