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.