Photo: Mikey WallyMichelle Poyourow, a transportation consultant in Portland, Ore., decided to ride down Hawthorne Blvd. for just a block. She was already on the defensive — it was a busy, fast road, and she was wearing a short skirt that day. Then it happened:
“A big SUV came by and the asshole in the front seat barked at me like a dog out the window. I gave him the finger at close range, and turned and looked just in time to see that the guy in the front seat was … a dog. A big, slobbery, loving golden retriever. Sounded so much like a drunk frat boy, you wouldn’t believe it.”
Road rage is something we all succumb to. Even mild-mannered transportation wonks. Even Zen Buddhists. But the middle finger is a force multiplier — deploying it can ruin your day, not to mention that of its recipient, no matter how deserving he or she may have been.
It always seems to get worse during the winter holidays, when everyone on the road is more preoccupied, hurried, distracted, drunk, or just plain angry than usual. December is a quantifiably stressful time of year. Families are getting together. Relationships are breaking up. Events, shopping, and schedules mean time management is strained to the breaking point. And alcohol is flowing freely. It shows on the road.
When tempers flare on the streets, people on bicycles are inarguably more vulnerable than those in cars. But though we have every incentive to keep road rage incidents from escalating, we’re still human and thus still prone to the kind of fear that spurs angry actions and reactions.
I’m certainly no angel when I decide someone is driving thoughtlessly or aggressively near me. Other people probably handle it better, I figured, so I put out a call to see how other two-wheeled travelers preserve their calm and sanity in a pinch. I got a lot of shrugged shoulders and responses like “I just get mad.”
There were some creative variants on the middle finger, though: “I’m not sure if this is constructive or not, but I like to give the thumbs down so they know they need to do something different,” tweeted Angela Dube, a graduate student who relies on her bicycle to get around San Jose, Calif.
Others go for the glib approach, perhaps bordering on sarcasm. “Peace sign and ‘I love you anyway’ always work great,” responded Paul Jeffrey, a cheerful fixture of Portland’s bike fun scene.
The best strategy of all seems to be not engaging. But it can take a Herculean effort — or perhaps the right incentives.
Zak Schwank, a full-time dad in Temecula, Calif., a small city that he describes as “not the most bike friendly,” has the ultimate reason to not succumb to road rage — he rides with his three kids, ages 1 to 8, on his cargo bike.
“When I bike solo,” he told me in an email, “I usually lose my cool quite quick.” But when he rides with his kids, he feels compelled to do things differently.
“Obviously when something happens with a motorist it can be quite scary,” he says. “The first thing I do is make sure that we are all safe. I try my best to remain calm. The blood gets flowing, but in reality this is a huge teaching moment for my family. I want my kids to grow up and be responsible, respectable adults. Cursing and yelling at motorists isn’t something I want to teach them … they’ll learn that on their own, I’m sure.”
In these situations, Schwank tries not to engage, even politely, he says. “I’ve found that talking to people only leads to more aggression.”
I find it embarrassingly difficult to follow Schwank’s lead and not participate in road rage. But on days when I’m determined to not react and to simply go about my day no matter what, my road calm seems to have a multiplying effect as well, bringing out the best in everyone, as though the world were full of friendly golden retrievers instead of the drunk frat boys of my pessimistic imagination.