disrespectful cyclist angry driver

Opinion: Disrespectful Cyclists Endanger The Whole Cycling Community

By Mara Abbott,
US Olympian – Cycling
CTS Contributing Editor

We’ve got a lot of muscle and plenty of power, but cyclists still don’t sit too high on the road-user food chain. If we want more respect ­– and the extra safety that can come along with it – we need to recognize we, as individuals and a community, play a role in earning (and forfeiting) that respect.

One of the most beautiful climbs near my hometown of Boulder, Colorado is Fourmile Canyon.  It’s also one of the routes damaged in the 2013 floods that decimated the roads and communities of Boulder’s foothills. This summer, after five years of discussion, negotiation, and financial red tape, construction is beginning on a permanent fix for Fourmile. Boulder County put a weekday, daytime ban on recreational cyclists (Canyon residents commuting by bike are excepted), explaining the restrictions are for safety due to expected high heavy truck traffic.

This has made the cyclists angry.  Over the last few weeks, local riders have taken to Twitter, speculating that without a specific end date the ban is likely an underhanded attempt at permanent cyclist restrictions, or that it’s the residents who should be sanctioned for aggressive driving. Some have even tossed around the word “murderers”.  I’ve been a two-wheel commuter since I was in a seat on the back of my dad’s bike, pulling the hair on his neck and telling him to go faster. I raced for over a decade, and I don’t actually know a lot of people who don’t own a bicycle – or four. I am very far on the side of cyclists when safety is concerned – but I have to say that if I lived up Fourmile Canyon and I read those comments, I sure wouldn’t want that on the road I drive home every night.

For many of us endurance athletes, spending a Sunday cruising the canyons is the most familiar thing in the world. Yet for many other road users, we are an entirely foreign specimen. It isn’t their lifestyle. The way we behave on the bike, the comments we make to one another in line at the coffee shop, and our public social media posts thus shape “what cyclists do”. For people who don’t know a lot of bike riders, our actions as individuals hold a whole lot of impression-building power.

There is no excuse for distracted and dangerous driving. There are laws to protect us, and all motorists should follow them. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone will – but we can do our best to make them want to.

As a racer, pre-riding the Philadelphia Cycling Classic course in 2016, many of the teams were headed out at the same time, so our squad merged with a few others. We were roughly twenty riders, but I was the only American. Cycling through Philly means hitting an inordinate number of stoplights that are timed properly for cars, not bikes, so my compatriots lost patience and began running the signals.

It wasn’t terribly dangerous – they always checked to be sure the coast was clear – but with a deepening feeling of doom, I couldn’t help imagining what the drivers stopped at the lights were thinking. A good chunk of their city would be shut down and traffic snarled for our race the next day, and that felt like plenty enough goodwill to request of anyone on a warm weekend in June.

However, my teammates’ frame of reference was different than mine. Cycling is more highly regarded, more common, and more accepted in Europe. It isn’t necessarily safer. In 2016, the share of fatal bicycle-car traffic collisions was four times higher there than in the United States, even though Europeans generally have a wider social latitude for what is acceptable cyclist behavior.  For the drivers in Philly, however, I feared we were giving the drivers around us a very negative impression from their relatively small sample size: this was the way that cyclists – even the best cyclists in the world ­– acted.

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Unfortunately my desire to follow all of the rules, all of the time was not my most favored characteristic as a teammate, and in any case, I was severely outnumbered. Rather than face team management’s wrath for skipping out solo on the team’s course recon, I became a co-conspirator. I followed them through the lights, I bought in, and I’m still not proud of it. We are the ambassadors of our sport, and the further we travel on our bikes, the greater our reach.

Should we fight for bike safety legislation? Absolutely. Should we report dangerous drivers and leverage new tools like on-bike cameras to increase safety? Of course. Should we work to educate drivers and teach them what we need as cyclists to be safe on the roads? Yes, yes, yes.  But as we work toward those goals, it is crazy to imagine others will be willing to extend respect to us that we are unwilling to offer to them.

The idea we have to behave well to enhance our own safety may seem unfair, but I think it’s reality.  Also, consider that after a few hours riding, we have the ability to step out of our chamois – and that isn’t the case for other minority or vulnerable groups.

As in racing: I could not control who showed up to the race, or who was strong. I could not always control whether I got a flat tire or was taken down in a big crash. The only thing that was mine was my reaction. Recalibrating and pressing forward never assured victory – but quitting and getting in the team car assured defeat. On the road, I don’t know the story of the person behind that wheel any more than they know mine. Compassion isn’t always easy, but it’s always an option. We get to choose our responses, and that is an incredibly important choice.

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Comments 33

  1. Pingback: Cycling Safety: Are You There Driver? It’s Me, Mara.

  2. We are cyclist, we are car drivers and Everytime we must be respecting the tráffic rules, everywhere, road or traíls….

  3. As a cyclist, I cringe every time I see people riding on sidewalks, the wrong way with traffic and yes running red lights and or stop signs. When growing up you had to follow the rules or was given an actual ticket. And when tickets were being issued they checked to see if your bike was registered. Apparently this was a hold over from when bikes were viewed as vehicles and thus had to obey road ruleswhile bad drivers cause me fear and trepidation bad actors or poorly educated cyclist enter racing or just daily commuters scares me even more. It gives the bad drivers a excuse.

  4. Cyclists on shared trails should be more aware of the pedestrians they pass. Today’s timid slow, stupid etc etc. Pedestrians ade tomorrow’s aggressive cyclist hating automobile driver. We are all valuable and all need respect.

  5. As a cyclist, the behaviour that drives me crazy is watching cyclists pass cars who are stopped at a red light, forcing everyone to pass them again. Be nice to the driver who passed you safely and courteously, and don’t make them do it again. And keep yourself safe by staying behind the driver who didn’t.

  6. A three part instructional course set by cyclingsavvy.org I recently took. It was a mind opener and very helpful, with an emphasis on situational awareness for urban, street riding and commuting.

    Beyond all the awareness and skills training, there was an emphasis to “wave, smile, be polite”, just as Roger suggested above.

    In our city we had another cyclist death just a few weeks ago, so I am very grateful for the instruction. I plan on retaking the course set at least annually.

  7. Most drivers don’t even respect other drivers or speed limits. Cyclists following rules to a T isn’t going to make drivers start respecting them. Such a notion is a bit naive. Just try and stay out of their way. If you get killed, you’ll just be swept under the carpet like every other dead person on the road (be it a cyclist, motorist, or pedestrian). There is little respect for ANY human life on the gritty streets of America.

  8. I’m astounded by what I’ve just read!

    I assumed until now that I live in a country where many things have to be done in favour of a safer road use by cyclists, but never in my mind I believed that you, US citizens, where dealing with such a prejudiced view from drivers towards cyclists.

    In the country next door (Spain), the government issued a regulation to allow drivers to overcome solid white lines when overtaking a cyclist, just to make sure that cars overtake with enough safety distance.

    In northern Europe, some city halls gave training actions to bus drivers, putting them in a bicycle commuting along a closed route and passing near them at 25mph, just for them to experience the wind effect on a biker at such low speed.

    We still have much work to do and every now and then we end up with a less than nice driver who just wants to complicate things, or is a simple ignorant and ill-bred idiot, but for what I could understand from your article, we are indeed lucky!

    Hope you all the best in overcoming all these issues.

  9. I agree. I got a good belly laugh as your caption picture looks like a picture of me on some of my rides. (NOT Proud of that but it is kinda funny)…… When your at max HR going up a hill or naving a pinch point at Max HR or someone blows by just off your elbow when there’s no traffic its kinda hard to remain composed and polite. That’s why i started using an turning on the go pro in those perilous times and dialing back those type responses. I just hope my recording don’t have to be used in a court of law following my death at the hands of these assholes on the road.

  10. I agree with the title. The few ruin it for the many and have made for some unpleasant rides for me.

    When cyclists get in a big group, out on the East coast one of those is the Pan Mass Challenge a two day endurance ride to raise money for cancer research at Dana Farber. By the end of day 1 I’m ready to strangle the folks who won’t get single file to the right when someone is yelling ‘Car Back’ or cruise up on your left at a break neck speed and don’t say ‘On Your Left’. All I can think is, I am so dreading day 2 where the bad cyclist behavior is amplified by the narrower and more crowded roads on Cape Cod and tired cyclists.

    I always fear this bad behavior is going to cause those drivers to be less concerned about the next cyclist they see on the streets.

    I do my best to obey all the rules, yes I’ll coast through a stop sign when there are no cars around. So maybe I do my best to obey the rules when being watched? Maybe that makes me a bad cyclist maybe that makes me human. I do have a passive aggressive tendency to count the number of drivers NOT stopping or on their phones, it’s kind of scary, actually. Usually those numbers still outweigh the times I wasn’t completely obedient to a stop sign. Is that right? No. But for sure if there is foot or vehicular traffic I do what I’m supposed to, for the safety of all of us.

  11. This article misses a key point – police do not enforce the few and limited laws that exist to protect cyclists, even when police witness said transgressions. No protection for cyclists encourages the “winner takes all” behavior by both cars and bikes. Since bikes always lose, bikes are even more motivated to take chances, if for no other reason than to not be wobbling thru an intersection, stabbing for a cleat, while drivers are looking past cyclists to see the cars that might interfere with their trip to Starbucks. If I had a dollar for every time I heard some driver say “I never saw the biker” I could afford to hire Chris for the rest of my life! So while I agree with Mara that I am an ambassador of the sport, and I make it a point that drivers who see my kit will expect riders on my team to follow the vehicle code, I also expect the police to do their job and enforce that vehicle code. Why don’t we ever hear about efforts to educate and motivate the police to do their dam job?

    1. This! I recently had a driver attempt to run me off the road twice, I had this recorded on my go pro he only stopped when all 6’2″ of me stepped off my bike as he was getting out of his car keep in mind this was on a quiet road 2 lane road at 9:17 AM on a Sunday. I got the plate and the video filed a police report, the cop told me that I’m “allowed to ride on the sidewalk or bike path”, DA did not prosecute. I now carry a handgun with me when I ride solo on the weekends. Keep in mind I am veeeery careful about the roads I ride. Yes there are plenty of idiots out there on group rides and the like but it pales in comparison to the amount of close intentional buzzes (assault with a 4,000 + lb weapon in my mind) that happen to me every single week. I get that it can’t be an Us vs them argument and that we’re all ambassadors of cycling but lets be frank the majority of incidents are instigated by drivers and 100% of the time there is a collision between an automobile and a cyclist the cyclists loses so I’m sure as hell not going to trivialize the actions of drivers out there.

  12. I appreciate the article and reminder to take others’ perspective. I am a cyclist, trail/road runner, and auto driver (and former motorcyclist) and have witnessed risky and self-centered decisions and actions from all. And sadly have made a few mistakes myself in those modes of transport. Thanks again and be safe out there!

  13. Many years ago, I was volunteering for a local ride, and part of it went through a construction zone, one lane, manned by a temporary stop light. At one point, a patrol officer was stopped, chatting with me, when a cyclist rode through the red light. I asked the officer why he didn’t go cite the cyclist, and his response was “I’m just here for the over-time pay”. So, not only do drivers and cyclists need to work together and follow the road rules, but the men/women in blue need to inform/cite those that ignore them. The lesson then would be learned.

  14. In my community of Bend, OR, a cycling community for sure (mountain, road, gravel, fat) we see a slightly different mindset between a diverse group of cyclist and a diverse group of motorist, but one common attribute that can make a difference.

    Drivers specially east of Bend are very much against seeing cyclist on “their roads” and think we should just ride the fog line with no room to live, question why do we ‘cyclist’ need to ride out there. Part of their mindset is from the variety of experience they’ve had with cyclist such as when in town. In town they will see cyclist not wearing helmets or usual cycling gear we all wear, riding the sidewalk and the crosswalks, crossing traffic without awareness giving the image of “you need to worry about me not me worry about you” all the way to cyclist wearing all the protective and usual cycling gear, using appropriate hand signals, using the bike paths, and visually clearing traffic when changing lanes. Who do you think they remember the most-the ones not following the rules and exhibiting an indignant attitude.

    By the same token their are drivers out there that on roads with only a fog lane and no emergency lane or bike path will pass within inches of you, maybe to intimidate you, maybe because they don’t care about the consequences they are not even thinking of if they strike you, or they are impaired on some level (phone use, alcohol and or drugs, inattentive) and if you do take and own the right wheel portion of the lane make it even more of a point. Pass on a double line at a hill accelerating, complain that you are riding two abreast (it is legal in Oregon as whether you are solo or double, every vehicle has to pass in a safe and prudent manner if you are a farm implement, rider on a horse, runner, or a cyclist) and the interesting part of all this is the last thought of their actions is what is legal, what potential consequences of their actions there could be, their primary thought is you are in the way on their roads.

    Does it do any good to be angry? No, being either the cyclist or the driver of the vehicle. There is definitely a difference between the driver who is a cyclist and one who is not and they don’t care. There is a difference in cyclist who follow the rules of the road and those that don’t.

    What’s the common theme? Attitude! This one idea would change every aspect of our lives, this country, and other social ills. We each own our own attitude and we can best make a positive impact by how we interact with others on the road by not getting angry but find avenues to spread a message. Advocacy groups, community activism, education and yes I know you all know this but one thing is for sure, you can’t change a mind when it is closed and on the road that mind is closed.

    How do you make this change occur. One aspect I have thought of is making rules of the road around those who share the road a focus of renewing your driver license taking the exam. Making it a focus on new drivers learning the skills of driving to obtain their license. Public information focuses whether it be on buses, or small signs around your town reminding to be kind to one another (Bend has such signs as welcoming visitors and sort of stating a mission of the community of kindness, awareness and acceptance). This change takes time because minds are slow to change.

    Nothing changes without changing the way you think or feel.

  15. As a runner I have, on many occasions, had bike riders blow by me from behind at high speed on both paved and dirt trails and with no warning. I don’t want anyone to get hurt and if I hear an “on your left” I will stay out of your way. But I have been passed by riders less than an arm’s length away before I even knew they were coming. And I do NOT wear earphones or listen to music. This is especially dangerous when i run with my dog. Again, if you give me a warning I will pull the dog close in to make sure she doesn’t turn in front of the bike. Let me know you are coming and I will stay out of your way.

  16. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News | Thursday, June 7 | Ultrarunnerpodcast.com

  17. My experience over the years has shown that the more experienced riders are the main problem. They are the ones who tend to skirt the road rules, not the less experienced riders. Many I’m sure feel that stopping will ruin their Strava data or the feel they have the experience level to handle the bike better or it just slows them down and god forbid that in our quest to go faster. Look no further than the article. So a word of wisdom for the experienced rider, lead by examnple or your behaviors could lead to a less experienced rider getting hit just because they saw you do it. As riders, we are all equally responsible to obey the road rules.

  18. No doubt this article is going to make waves in the cyclist community, but honestly, when it comes to our survival on the roads it is a give and take. Those of us in the South Metro area of Denver no doubt remember when just a few years ago Deer Creek Canyon almost became a war zone, escalating to the point that guns even got involved, cyclists were purposefully hit by motorists and things reached a point where the Jeffco Sheriff had to step in. And honestly, it wasn’t just the motorists that were at fault. Cyclists, motorcyclists, and sport car fanatics all pissed off the local residents to a point where many of them would have liked nothing more than the road completely shut down to anyone who didn’t live up there. Yet, it got worked out, and while it isn’t perfect it is much better than it was. However, we must realize we are vastly outnumbered out on the roads and being disrespectful only creates more enemies and fewer allies and it is those allies we need. Sometimes it means that we have to give more than we like but when we do make sure we are as visible as possible to the drivers to let them know that you are trying. Wave, smile, be polite, and basically act like your mother would have wanted you to.

  19. This kind of opinion piece is used against the majority who obey the law all the time. There is no such thing as a disrespectful cyclist. It’s disrespectful people. They are the same on cars or on foot. Such a silly thing to discuss. And of course everyone will jump in to chide them making cyclists look bad. CTS should know better. Shame on you for giving us all a black eye.

    And that graphic??? *Cyclists endangering people* compared to a driver with road rage commandeering a 3,000 lb. vehicle.

    There is a propaganda war against cyclists on talk radio, news and the paper if you haven’t noticed. We should be smarter about how we discuss such issues.

  20. Not being a cyclist myself, I respect the right of cyclists on the road, but it should go both ways. Drivers should FULLY understand the cyclists legal road rights, but cyclists should follow them. The following of said rules also varies by region it appears. I have been in very cyclist heavy areas such as Leadville and others, and see one thing, but live in a small suburban area in Ohio and see another. Driving and running through my neighborhood, we see absolutely no one who is on two wheels actually adhere to stop signs or cars for that matter. They weave in and around, blow through signs and then get angry at the drivers when they almost get hit. No signalling…ever will get you hit as well. We have a small paved walking/riding path cyclists take but most without regard for walkers/runners and are more than likely imagining themselves in the Tour de France at breakneck speeds and give angry looks at people who are in their way. When I ride on the path, I slow way down and anticipate what people may do such as step in front of me and thank them or say have a good day to be polite. It’s not always people being angry at cyclists specifically, but the fact most traffic laws are not followed. Imagine them as a car driver, and never signalling and blowing through every stop sign and stop light. Car drivers would not be too happy with them as well. On the flip side, I see car drivers unsafely passing bikers where passing should never happen which goes to your point on patience. If you are on a bike though, in a 25 MPH zone, and riding at 5 MPH, move over so drivers can pass. If you’re riding at speed limit, 25 MPH for example, drivers should never unsafely pass. Just my two cents, and my observations.

    1. Yes, cyclists should be respectful and have a pleasant attitude.
      However, I disagree whenever I hear drivers complain about “cyclists always breaking the laws, running stop signs, riding in large groups, blocking the roads so no one can pass. . . etc.” I virtually never see any cyclists doing these things, and I seriously doubt they have, since they don’t “see” cyclists. As a cyclist, I do “see” cyclists, and like I said, virtually never see such bad behavior.
      Another important point – when you or anyone else gets a drivers license, you are agreeing to follow the Motor Vehicle Code of that state, and every other state you drive in.
      Every state’s Motor Vehicle Code requires drivers to respect slower moving vehicles, recognize those vehicles have a right to the road, and pass them at a safe distance.
      I don’t argue these points with drivers when I’m on my bike. But I do respectfully, but firmly, (and kindly) point them out when this topic comes up in civil conversation.
      So yes, be respectful, but also respectfully challenge anyone who makes such blanket claims about bad cyclist behavior.
      When some driver starts complaining about bicycles, I ask them if they really have observed such things, or are only repeating what others say. I ask them to detail specifics. And then, explain that the proper response from drivers is to contact the police. It’s easy to do in the moment with a cell phone.
      And on my bike, I act courteously. If things are really dangerous, I get out my phone and take pictures.
      On one occasion where a driver repeatedly attempted to run me off the road, I happened to meet up with them at a parking lot. I announced largely so everyone around them could hear that I didn’t appreciate them threatening my life, that everyone around could see that their license plate was _______, and they were driving a yellow Mustang, and there were now many witnesses so that if anything happened to me, they would know who to talk to the police about it. That ended the encounter and the driver was very apologetic.
      And yes, I filed a police report.

  21. Typically there is almost no mention of cyclists rules/rights and vulnerabilities in most states’ driver education courses/manuals. I say one potentia partiall solution is to start young, with new drivers and educate motorists to better understand car/bike behavior.
    Sure cyclists can( and do) misbehave, but generally speaking I feel most cyclists would welcome some code of road ethics if they knew that new motorists were being trained to be safer too.

  22. I have found that signaling my desire to change lanes with my arm and then looking over my left shoulder to see if the motorist in the lane that I want to move into has slowed down has been not only safe but it builds respect for cyclists. I then give them a big wave over the top of my helmet (so other motorists can see my show of respect) of “thanks!” What this accomplishes is that the motorists are being asked, “Hey, mind if I move over in front of you?”

  23. The only problem is things will never change in this country if we do only the things mentioned in your article. I say we need need to following the Dutch model, take to the streets and demand bicycle infrastructure, and until we do the killing will go on.

  24. I wholeheartedly agree many cyclists do not respect the rules of the road nor do they respect the driver’s of vehicles.

  25. Unfortunately, many traffic lights are set by cameras that “only” recognize cars; as such they will never turn green unless a car is waiting. This forces people to violate the red light. Overall, I agree with your recommendations, but if you visit places like Madison, Wisconsin you will see that motorists truly respect cyclists in some locations because of stiffer rules. That is NOT true in Philadelphia where your must violate some traffic rules to protect yourself from high risk motorists with no concern about a biker.

    Thank you for a very informative article about Colorado.

    1. My understanding is that the Uniform Vehicle Code allows for cyclists, after waiting longer than normal for a light to change , to treat the “non-functioning red light” as a stop sign, proceeding when it is safe. Keep the rubber side down.

  26. Well-stated, Ms. Abbott. We are each ambassadors for the sport of cycling–and all cyclists–when we throw a leg over a bike and ride down the road.

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