A cyclist recently messaged me to ask for advice on how to build their confidence in approaching potentially confrontational interactions with drivers and assertively advocating for their rights and safety in the moment on the road. This is an edited version of my reply.
Obvious Irony Is Obvious
It may strike some as ironic that I would have anything to say on the subject of keeping one's cool on the road - I tend to get more emotional with drivers than many folks.
I do that in large part because it's important for me, as a matter of principle, to express myself at a level of emotion appropriate to the reality of what just happened - that is to say, to respond as angrily as I would have if the person who just endangered my life had done so with any other deadly machine than a car, like, say, a gun.
My values dictate that I respond to one in the same way I would respond to the other; since I would get angry at someone who waved a gun in my face, I am beholden to also become angry at someone who passes me with only six inches to spare in a vehicle that weighs 4,000 pounds.
But appearances to the contrary, it's nearly always been somewhat of a decision for me to become angry. There are exceptions, of course - usually times when I came literal inches from dying or losing a limb, when my anger was a pure, unconscious adrenal response appropriate to a life-or-death situation (such situations make up the bulk of the "most watched" section of my channel). But I work towards an ideal of having my level of aggression towards a driver always be a controlled choice.
Hopefully, even if your aim is to be far less aggressive than myself in your interactions with dangerous drivers, this can be helpful to you.
Mindfulness At All Times
The biggest part for me of learning to trigger, rather than be triggered by, anger is practicing mindfulness when I bike at all times - not just in situations of stress or danger.
Mindfulness as a constant part of biking is useful in a lot of ways other than anger management and confrontation - I associate it generally with minimizing risk of death or injury while biking in traffic, as well as with general mental health. I am constantly paying attention to the things around me - small changes in traffic noise, distant lights, upcoming infrastructure, risk situations like blocked sight lines, and so forth - so I just add one more thing to that list, which is my own emotional, physical, and cognitive state.
When I'm on my bike, I pay some measure of attention at all times to how my body feels, how sharp my focus is, my level of arousal (in the psychological, rather than sexual, sense), whether I'm becoming distracted from the road by thoughts about work or my personal life, how smooth my shifting feels in my fingers and hips and the balls of my feet, how much road grip I can feel on my back tire through my sit bones and on my front tire through my fingers, and so on.
When I approach a situation in which I wish to become confrontational, I take an inventory of these states:
With this self-knowledge, I'm ready to take the next step.
Formulating the Approach
As I get closer to the target driver, I quickly run down some variation on the following questions:
Beyond picking a couple of likely candidates for their first rebuttal, I usually improvise, though I have a few different practiced options of rebuttal for most major of the major approaches to anti-cyclist rhetoric - see below for more on this.
Remaining Mindful and Focused When Angry
During the interaction, I continue to monitor my arousal level and degree of malice towards the person on the other end of the interaction. For safety reasons, I also:
Paying proper attention to all of these things at once is a skill to be practiced, not an ideal anyone is going to perform perfectly every time - and certainly not right away.
Two safety tips unrelated to mindfulness:
For the most part, I find that deciding ahead of time how angry I am going to become helps me keep my behavior in check. You can also help yourself calm down by taking a break and letting the other person talk for a while - most likely, the driver will dig themselves straight into a hole. While they are talking, you can focus on your breath and on stepping outside your anger while still letting it exist.
After the Storm
Presuming the driver doesn't leave, I decide when to end interactions based often more upon how much of a rush I'm in that day than how long I think it's productive. Catch me on a less busy day and I'll educate your ass as long as you stay on my route, because how the fuck dare you behave unsafely with something as deadly as a car.
But as soon as the interaction has ended, I enter a sort of step-down mode, where I still keep a high level of attention on the target driver's position and behavior on the road, but only as relevant to me getting away safely. Meanwhile, I start guiding my body and mind through the process of calming down: attention on the breath, attention on my feelings, attention on my body. If you find it difficult at first to do these things while still paying adequate attention to traffic, just pull over for a while and breathe it out.
I highly recommend you debrief with yourself immediately. It greatly helps with calming down by keeping me from formulating the argument I just had as "a thing I can still win," because I can't, and winning isn't the point anyways (though it sure is fun when it happens). What just happened has already happened and I can't change that now. Instead, I try to focus on analysis of my performance:
Then return that part of your mind fully to the road and your body and a little bit on your mind and heart, but don't spend any more brain units on the conflict until you edit the video a few days later. You can always do a full analysis then.
Practice Only on the Days You Eat
That's the process, but the process is also informed by a lot of experience (which only comes with time), as well as two other important factors - a) research and b) practice arguing with people in controlled environment (Reddit; YouTube; friends; random people who, upon meeting you at a party and learn you're a cyclist, start complaining about cyclists they have witnessed running red lights; Uber drivers who complain to you about cyclists running red lights while full-on blowing two red lights in a row).
I have a lot of stock answers ready to go because I've spent a lot of time figuring out how to articulate my values and the traffic law of my state. Most of the time I know what I want to say before I start an interaction, because this is not a unique event in my life.
Put another way, reading traffic laws and bicycle safety literature are my sweet science. Arguing in a controlled environment is my practice gym. The road is my boxing ring.
Legal and Political Theory
The legal knowledge will differ based on jurisdiction. Look up your local traffic ordinances, look up your state statutes, and take a look at Federal highway statutes. Read your state book of uniform traffic control signals. Check out your state's administrative rules - this is a new one to me, but a friend of mine recently pointed out that's where Minnesota's standards for the brightness of bike lights are listed.
Get involved with your local advocacy group enough to understand some of the major trends in your jurisdiction's political conversation around cycling infrastructure. Read articles in the newspaper about cycling crashes, cycling promotion, and cycling infrastructure. Read the comments no matter how much they piss you off.
Don't feel like you have to know everything about everything - having every statute on the tip of your tongue is impossible. But definitely get yourself acquainted with the broad strokes.
For example, if I lived in Florida, every single fucking interaction I had with a driver would involve mention of the fact that Florida has the highest rate of fatality for cyclists. This is a powerful rhetorical tool. It simultaneously drives home the idea that cyclists are the target of injustice, and the idea that misbehavior in a car leads to lethal consequences. Research can uncover such tools.
Bike Safety Theory
The biking safety theory comes from safe cycling instructional packets produced by cycling organizations; YouTube videos of messengers and other experienced urban riders; theory-related videos from vehicular and non-vehicular cyclists alike; Sheldon Brown; people whose cycling style I agree with; people whose cycling style I disagree with; /r/roadcam; /r/bikecammers; and so on. Cast your net widely. Try to learn something from everyone and everything that has anything to do with traffic safety.
Then synthesize what you learn with what you know about the deficits and assets of your body and mind - this part is difficult to write about in any detail, because it will differ wildly by person. The synthesis step is, I believe, one of the greatest weaknesses of professional cycling education, which teach everyone to bike the same way regardless of their capabilities and limitations.
For example, I feel very safe in a filter - far safer than I would feel parked behind stopped cars. I feel this way because I can perform a filter without snagging my backpack on a side mirror and without having a fear reaction to being inches from the side of a bus. Other people may not feel comfortable in a filter and should probably choose another way of handling stopped or slow-moving motor vehicle traffic.
Finally, trust that you have created the best synthesis you can, and be prepared to confidently defend your decisions. Remember that for many, many situations, "because it was safer for me" is a perfectly defensible position for a cyclist.
For example: "Why were you taking up the whole lane?"
"Because being more central in the lane makes me more visible and removes me from the door zone. It gives me more room to maneuver in case of emergency. It discourages close passes. It makes me better able to see cross traffic and pedestrians at intersections. And the law says I can, so you can just slow the fuck down and wait for a safe place to pass, motherfucker."
Argue for Fun
Finally, practice by arguing with people in low-stress environments. Work on two things:
Get Comfortable with Failure
Last but not least, and I'm bad at this myself, but in all parts of the above process and theory work, spend effort on giving yourself permission to make errors. Even in a controlled environment, you're going to fuck up sometimes, so of course when you confront drivers out in the real world, you're gonna fuck it up there, too, and likely more often. It's a stressful situation and your body and mind will sometimes behave like it's a stressful situation even when you do your best to prepare yourself.
The Moral at the End of the Story
A final moral, rather than practical, caution: make sure you have a high degree of confidence in your ability to stay in control enough, even when quite angry, to avoid hurting anyone or destroying any property. If you don't have confidence in that ability, you should not confront drivers.
This is a moderately edited and refined version of a reply I wrote on Reddit to a user claiming to be an involved member of the Twin Cities cycling advocacy community. Unfortunately, that user deleted their comment before I could copy-paste it. The general thrust of their comment was that MPLS Bike Wrath in general and my assertive and sometimes angry advocacy style in particular are counter-productive in the effort to protect cyclists and pedestrians. Despite now lacking the specific context of that initial comment, what I wrote ended up capturing many of my thoughts on the subject of cycling safety and cycling safety advocacy pretty well, so I decided to turn it into a blog post.
This post contains a bit of cussing, so cover your eyes for those parts.
I've long wondered why tone policing is so prevalent and tolerated in the cycling advocacy community when it's so immediately and consistently called out in every other justice community of which I've been a part. What you've written is, unfortunately, a textbook example of it.
It is a completely rational and appropriate response to get very angry at someone who, for no other reason than momentary irritation, takes deliberate and reckless action that puts a human life in danger.
Telling someone who has just had their life intentionally endangered by a driver - for no other reason than to express that driver's momentary irritation - that they, and their completely normal, totally appropriate, absolutely healthy anger response to such a behavior are the problem - that they should instead stuff their feelings and move along quietly - is insanely asinine and ultimately serves only to reinforce a culture that teaches most drivers to treat us with casual disregard and encourages far too many drivers to treat us as convenient targets for their frustrations.
You're shaming me (or, more accurately, attempting to shame me) for having a panic/adrenaline/anger reaction to almost being struck and injured by a vehicle - by a driver - for the thirteenth time since I started riding my bike in the Twin Cities nearly ten years ago.
As an aside, I haven't been injured (by a car, at least - my tendency to gravitate towards wet leaves in the fall and icy corners in the winter is another matter) in the last three and a half years, ever since I started riding busier roads, taking more of the lane, and being more assertive with drivers.
All twelve of my prior crashes were at the hands of drivers who didn't know I was there, because I was on sleepier side streets and they weren't paying as much attention as they would’ve on a busier route, or because I was hugging the right curb and my existence didn’t register for them, or because I was too timid in my maneuvers.
We would all love to live in the utopia wherein everyone gives as much as they take and there are never any accidents and nothing bad ever happens, but that's not reality. Not by a long shot.
Sure, and we'd all love to live in the utopia where homophobia is dead, but as a queer person I can assure you that telling queers to tone down the swishy shit and stop being so fucking gay all the time is not an ethically acceptable response to the reality of a homophobic culture that is alive and well. Neither is telling cyclists they shouldn't be pissed as hell about the danger we're put in by drivers an ethically acceptable response to the very-much-alive culture of car violence.
it just makes everyone see you as a whiny bitch.
Your casual misogyny is pretty disturbing.
If you want to make a difference, work towards getting better infrastructure.
Why is infrastructure the only answer that most cycling advocates are willing to entertain to the problem of car violence?
The root of car violence is a culture that dictates that roads are first for cars, and perhaps we'll squeeze in stuff for other road users if it doesn't slow us down too much and it doesn't cost too much money. The root of car violence is a culture that treats cars like appliances instead of deadly machines - that treats driving as a boring chore from which we need to be distracted rather than a grave responsibility, one that deserves our undivided attention.
Our ultimate goal should not be to remove ourselves entirely from roads and give up even more of our city to an unjust system that puts our lives in danger. Our ultimate goal should be to dismantle that system - to kill the culture of car violence.
Infrastructure's great, don't get me wrong, but it's like giving a painkiller to someone with a broken leg - the underlying problem remains even if we feel it less sharply. We need the painkiller, because that will save many of the lives that need saving and it'll give the cycling community more physical space in which to grow, but we will never be Copenhagen. It's just not possible in most cities in the U.S., including the Twin Cities. Transportation cyclists will, for at least several decades to come, have to use regular traffic lanes some or much of the time, depending on where in the metro they live, work, eat, play, and find community. When they do have to use regular traffic lanes, they will be intimidated, injured, and killed by the culture of car violence.
It's also not an either/or decision. I can, and do, work towards improving infrastructure, and I can, and do, get abusive and dangerous professional drivers fired and disciplined, report incidents to the Close Call Database, provide accountability by publishing the license plates, faces, and vehicle information of drivers who break the law, call out companies whose policies neglect cyclist safety, push for better enforcement of traffic law, and provide immediate education and pushback to drivers who put me in danger on the road.
It may be a surprise to many that I have quite a lot of very positive interactions with drivers. I just don't publish that footage very often because I feel compelled to blur out the identifying information and faces of such folks in the footage, and that takes a lot of time and energy.
To help kill the culture of car violence, our Cities need a traffic enforcement plan, one that specifically commits to the protection of vulnerable road users and holds drivers to standards commensurate with the standards to which we hold people granted the privilege of possessing and using any other type of deadly machines in public spaces. We need an enforcement plan that targets offenses in a methodical and data-driven way, rather than leaving decisions about traffic enforcement to the whims and biases of individual officers. We need to aggressively prosecute drivers who behave recklessly while behind the wheel.
The fact that a driver can strike and kill an elderly pedestrian because they were distracted by checking their text messages and receive as punishment four days in jail is one of the most gut-wrenching symptoms of our current lack of adequate enforcement.
This should make all of us very, very angry.
Traveling down Lyndale at rush hour, waiting for someone to pass you at 2 feet 10 inches because you stopped abruptly for someone who almost thought about stepping off the curb isn't going to accomplish anything, except for maybe turning you into a bloodstain on the road.
So you're suggesting I break the law? Pedestrians have right of way at unsignalized intersections, full stop, 100% of the time. You've got the chutzpah to dress me down for being unhelpful while advocating for the perpetuation of a status quo that kills and injures pedestrians and makes walking in this city terribly unsafe and intimidating for so, so many people?
Pedestrian and cyclist safety is very important, but your vigilante methods are more harmful than beneficial.
I've yet to see anyone who's made this assertion provide any reason to believe it to be true. In no other justice movement has "being quiet, looking small, and hoping nobody steps on us too hard" been an effective strategy. Why are we so sure that it's the golden ticket to ending car violence?
Traveling down Lyndale at rush hour
The reason I ride busy roads is because studies show that the more cyclists we have riding on dangerous roads, the safer they become for all cyclists. Cyclists live on Lake Street and cyclists live on Lyndale. We live on Franklin and we live on Hennepin. Real actual human beings have to ride on these streets. Suggesting that cyclists have any less of a right to ride, or be safe, on Lyndale than they do on Bryant is to simply go belly up in the fight against car violence - to cede more and more of our city every day to the exclusive domain of cars.
The reason I ride those roads at rush hour is because, like most drivers, that's when I happen to be coming home from work.
This means acknowledging that not everyone is actively trying to kill you.
Under no circumstances have I said anything that could be construed by a reasonable person to suggest that everyone is actively trying to kill me. In fact, I've consistently maintained that the much bigger dangers to all of us are casual neglect, ignorance, and complacency. As I said above, all of my crashes have been at the hands of drivers who simply didn't see me or never considered the possibility of of my presence on the road, or who had no idea that they owed cyclists specific duties beyond those owed to other cars.
In summary and conclusion, my own recommendations to the original commenter