This is an excerpt from a post that I made over at bikejournal last week. It was one of the semi-regular threads about dealing with aggressive drivers, but a thread that started as a discussion on the legal issues quickly turned into a self-blame fest for "antagonising" drivers. You may be able to access the thread here
, although the site may require registration to view that page.
There seems to be a certain automatic "blame the cyclist" reaction everytime a cyclist has a disagreement with a driver. Indeed, many cyclists themselves seem to have bought into it. This would seem a little unusual, as more often than not (although admittedly not always) the driver seems to be the aggressor in these cases, either by abusing/threatening/assaulting the cyclist. I suppose the blame arises simply because society finds it easier to just blame the victim, as this is usually an effective means of avoiding any obligation to take action over the incident.
I've had this sort of behaviour directed at me a number of times, always unprovoked. I've often tried to react positively, and have come to the conclusion that being conciliatory in this situation is like trying to be conciliatory to a schoolyard bully -- it just doesn't work. Consequently, these days I tend to just go about my business exactly as I was going about it before, and not let it concern me -- the same approach I used to take to schoolyard bullies. So far this latter approach has proven the most effective both in preventing the situation from escalating, and in maintaining my own piece of mind.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have had quite a bit of experience with schoolyard bullies (the kind of experience that comes only with being the smallest in the class). Fortunate, because it taught me a lot about people. The scenario generally works like this: Bully/coward (strike out whichever does not apply) encounters a situation in their own life they can't cope with. Bully/coward somehow realises they can't deal with it, and so, looks for a totally unrelated outlet they can use in order to try to compensate for their own deficiencies.
The psychology between the aggressive driver and the schoolyard bully is identical. The schoolyard bully picks on the smallest kid in the class because he figures they can't (or at least won't) hit back. The aggressive driver picks on a cyclist because he figures they can't catch up to him. If you don't believe me, try riding in a situation where you might be able to catch up to them (such as gridlock) and watch the attitude change.
Every day on the way to work I ride through gridlock in the so-called "rush hour" and pass hundreds (sometimes thousands) of cars. I can lane-split (which I often do), I can do anyone of a million other things, and nobody will even raise their voice. For all the abuse I've had directed at me by drivers over the years, I have never had a problem riding through gridlock.
Conversely, virtually all of the road-rage related problems* that I have
had with drivers have occurred on quiet roads where there were few (if any) witnesses, and where they could step on the gas and get away without being hindered by traffic. Even those who found themselves hindered by traffic later on to the extent that I could catch up to them again suddenly went very quiet when it happened.
Clearly, these aren't poor souls who are upset about being "held up" by an evil, moustache-twirling cyclist. These are cowards with their own set of problems who simply perceive the cyclist as an easy target. No amount of being nice to motorists and politely asking them to return the favour is going to work, because ultimately, the problem isn't with the majority of motorists -- the problem is with a very small subset with a different psychology to the average motorist.
The real solution is going to come back to law enforcement. It's going to come back to the police taking cyclists' complains seriously enough to investigate, and actually prosecuting where appropriate. However, this is not going to happen as long as we have people (including cyclists who really should know better) trying to excuse, defend or (in some cases) even support this behaviour by describing it as some kind of desperate call for help from a poor soul that has been tortured by demons on two wheels.
However, nothing is going to be achieved by simply taking the easy option of seeking to blame the victim.
* I generally have more problems with drivers who are just plain incompetent than those who are overly aggressive. The incompetent tend to be greater in number, and far more difficult to predict.