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Why Do Drivers Get Mad at Bikers?
I bet that drivers in Portland are happier too. Photo by

I bet that drivers in Portland are happier too. Photo by

Sarah Goodyear asks a good question: “What is it about bicycles that drives some motorists so crazy?” Her answer is that while yes, bikes do sometimes slow down cars, she “sometimes think[s] that drivers hate on bicyclists so much because, consciously or subconsciously, they envy the freedom that being a bicyclist represents.”

I’m fairly self-conscious about my reaction to bikers; I strongly believe that we need to get more people from cars to bikes but I also can get so mad at bikers while driving. In those moments of self-reflection after getting mad at a biker (and we’re not talking yelling out the window, just feelings of frustration), here are my thoughts.

It’s definitely not speed. There are times where you have to drive slower for a block or so, but never slower to the extent that you can’t make it up on the next block.

It’s also not some primal battle for control over the streets. There are definitely crazies out there, but a really staggering proportion of drivers get frustrated with bikers. Most of them are reasonable people who have no problem with the idea of bikers and who actually want to figure out how to solve the problem. You probably can’t win over those who want people to stop biking. The important question is figuring out why the majority of drivers get mad at bikers.

Rather, I see two reasons the average driver gets mad at bikers. The first is a sense that bikers don’t have to follow the rules that drivers do. One of the two times I can remember being really steamed at a biker was when I saw one pair of bikers run four consecutive red lights. Not yellow, not just turned red, not right on red, just sort of blasting through an intersection. They were mostly being safe—they just went through when there was a break in the traffic—but flagrantly breaking a law that does and should apply to bikes exactly as much as it does to cars. And running reds is not uncommon, in my experience.

The other major reason is safety. Absolutely no driver wants to hit a biker. Crashes are indeed underreported and underprosecuted, but people really don’t want to hit a biker. And too often, it feels easy. The other time I was really mad at bikers was when a bike changed lanes, cutting right in front of me, and slamming on the brakes came very close to not being enough. In my conversations, this is universal. It’s not so much that it’s frustrating to drive near bikes, it’s that it’s scary. When a close call heightens the tenor of that fear, it can turn into anger as a way of lashing out.

What’s important about assigning these as the two primary reasons that drivers get mad at bikers is that it assumes the best of drivers. It approaches them in good faith. Then, and only then, can drivers become allies, rather than opponents.

For example, right now, drivers are taught only that bikes must follow the rules of the road. I think that a clarification of when biking should and should not differ legally from driving a motorized vehicle would be welcomed by most drivers. They’d be happy to allow safe rolling stops at stop signs if that were part of a clarification that bikers must bike with traffic, or can’t run reds, or whatever the comprehensive rules came out to.

Similarly, framing a desire for bike lanes not as reclaiming space from cars but as allowing both cars and bikes to ride safely and appropriately is something that would split what is often a very united front on the part of drivers.

There are a lot of terrible people driving cars who get mad at bikers for all sorts of awful reasons. There are also some biking advocates who have decided that the best strategy for winning much-needed improvements in our biking infrastructure is battle rather than compromise. This has created a discourse, however, entirely of conflict. I think that if you look at why drivers do get mad at bikers and compare it to what bikers want, there’s room for a new discourse of collaboration. That’s how we’re going to get the changes we need to get people out of their cars.

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  • Elaine

    To Abel, #3: Several cities in Europe have tried to address the invisibility-at-intersections/car-turning-right problems by creating a “bike box” at the front of the right lane at each intersection, where cyclists can congregate while they wait for the light to turn. This makes them completely visible to cars around them, and allows them to travel through the intersection ahead of all the cars in the right lane, including those intending to turn right. Simple, smart, effective. We should try it some time.

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  • I am also going to respond as a cyclist and say that the above comments reflect a lot of my sentiments. I wear a helmet, use hand signals, never wear headphones, ride predictably, and am generally a very safe rider. I will safely run red lights (if there is NO traffic coming) for the same reasons that Abel mentioned, and yet I still anger motorists. People have thrown trash at me, spit on me, honked, doored me (and then yelled at ME in a bike lane). I think Elaine is right on with the idea of education. We need bicycling to be a major component of drivers ed – both educating people on how to bike in traffic and how to drive with bikes.

    I’m working on a PSA that will educate people about dooring. Think of the THree’s Company theme song, but:
    “Please don’t open your door…before you look in the mirror!” Help me with follow-up lines!

  • Abel

    As a cyclist, I am willing to admit that I (and many other cyclists) consistently run red lights. When I first started cycling in the city I obeyed all traffic laws, but have since decided that running red lights is often safer than waiting. The reason for this is that if I am waiting on the right side of a lane, there is a pretty high potential that when the light turns green that the car to my left or the one behind that one will not see me. I also live in a city where right turns on red are legal and many cars will attempt to turn even if there is a cyclist stopped legally (I actually had a friend who was killed this way). If I wait in the center of the lane motorists often honk or try to go around me once the light turns green. By checking to see if there’s oncoming traffic and if not, running a red light, I give myself a head start so that impatient motorists are less likely to honk and startle as I try to get started up, and I also make myself more visible to those behind me.

  • Marie Diamond

    As usual, Noah is right on the money. I think it’s a combination of the perception of bikers as erratic or unpredictable coupled with the fear of hitting a biker that makes drivers so on edge when bikers are around. Particularly in traffic or dense urban areas, being close to a biker can be nerve-racking, not because most bikers are unsafe (they’re not), but because you realize how easily you could hurt a cyclist if she should happen to move suddenly or you’re not paying attention. Having to be even more on guard than usual is stressful for drivers–something bikers should be considerate of.

  • Elaine

    As a cyclist, I’ll expand on a couple of reasons drivers seem to have gotten mad at me:
    1. I ride in the street instead of on the sidewalk. Many drivers don’t realize that in lots of places this is THE LAW. Bicycles are vehicles, and are banned from sidewalks for the same reasons cars are — they hit people. (In addition, it only takes one store patron pushing open a door to exit just when a cyclist is coming along the sidewalk to cure that cyclist of any desire to ride on sidewalks ever again.) As mentioned above, drivers and law enforcement both need much more education on what the laws are regarding safe and legal cycling. This should be a bigger part of getting a license, whether it’s a new driver or just transferring a license to a new state.
    2. I get tarred with the “unsafe-cyclist” brush, even though I work very hard to be safe. The bike cowboys (and cowgirls) who ride without helmets, weave in and out of traffic lanes, disregard traffic signals (occasionally endangering crossing pedestrians), don’t use hand signals, ride three abreast, etc., are nothing but bad PR for cyclists everywhere. Cyclists need to be on their best behavior all the time, so that we can never be accused of poor road manners. I’d be delighted to see a crackdown on unsafe cycling; we all have a responsibility to do better.