Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Close Encounters of the Car Kind

Yesterday I read an editorial at about the image of cycling and cyclists and how our actions influence the perceptions of automobile drivers:

There were some good suggestions as to how to improve upon our image. I assimilated the info, mostly subconsciously, but didn't give the article much more thought.

Today I had a chance to practice a few of the tips.

I was rolling out to Squak Mountain on Newport Way, just west of the intersection with Rt. 900, and just after the decent shoulder goes away. It was 8 AM, and there was some traffic, but by no means did the setting seem typical of the "Urgent Hour" when everyone is scrambling to get to work.

As I was scanning the view behind me in my little mirror, I noticed a black SUV with dark glass approaching at well above the speed limit. Despite the many miles I ride, I don't feel like I get "close passed" very often. I typically profile overtaking cars, and if I see something I don't like, or if a car is making no effort to move to the left and/or slow down, I move left myself in an attempt to “walk” the car to the left. This forces the car to do something, unless they are just going to run over me, and as they approach, I gradually move to the right and give a friendly wave of thanks for the buffer of space I was able to create.

I used this tactic this morning, but there was oncoming traffic, and not a lot of maneuvering room. I stayed out a little into the lane, and then at the last moment I moved to the very edge of the road, as I saw the car driver was not making any effort to change their course. The car missed me by what seemed like 6 inches as it went by me at about 45 mph.

I put my head down, and hammered on the pedals, knowing I would likely catch this car at the Rt. 900 light. I did, and as I rolled up to the driver's side window, I was not happy. It was a woman driving the car, and she was looking into her purse, oblivious to me having pulled up behind, and then right next to her. I tapped on the window, and started "speaking loudly", and she cracked the rear window.

It must have been then that I thought it possible that she never saw me, despite the fact that I was wearing a bright yellow jersey. Could she have been brushing her hair in the mirror? How scary is that thought? Scary, but deserving of a full verbal attack?

For whatever reason, she decided to roll down the driver’s side window, and I guess that conciliatory action on her part (and perhaps the subconscious influence of the Pez article) calmed me down and altered the tone of the encounter. Using an urgent, but not totally angry tone, I said something like "You missed me by 6 inches", and never even made any effort to slow down." She quietly replied, "I'm sorry," and I wasn't sure she was totally sincere, but it was close enough.

Past encounters of this type have not gone this well for me. Several times, as I lambasted a driver in a confrontational tone, I have mentally and physically prepared myself for the driver to step out of their car and engage me without their steel cocoon around them. Luckily this has never happened, and regardless of how keyed up I may have been at times, there are certain encounters that are not possible to "win". It doesn't really matter how "strong" a cyclist one might be when they are staring at the barrel of a handgun.

So I surprised myself at what happened next. In a more subdued, but still slightly urgent voice, I said, "The next time you pass a bicycle, would you please slow down and give the rider some room!?" Making eye contact while she spoke, the driver replied, "I'm sorry, I will."

What a concept! I used the word please, and she used the word sorry...twice.

If you have a minute, skim the Pez article. I readily admit that I am no angel, and at one time or another I have been guilty in varying degrees of most of the actions the author describes. What might be different going forward is that I am now more aware of what actions I might be "guilty" of on the road, and just how they might be interpreted.

I ride a lot by myself, but I also lead a weekly group ride called the Hills of the West Coast, and a monthly Team HPC ride. We have all seen how the group mentality can take over when a gathering of cyclists hit the road, and how difficult it is at times to motivate riders in a group to be as responsible for their actions as they likely would be if they were riding solo.

Yes, it's difficult, but not impossible, and I am going to do my best to see if I can help our group rides go as smoothly as possible. I want to try and become even more aware than I am of how our actions are perceived. I'll try to lead by example, and if I don't, call me on it. Not that we have had many problems over the six years of the HOWC, but there is always room for improvement.

Not rolling through stops may cost us a few additional seconds on top of our 4+ hour rides, but we are not really in a hurry, are we? After all, we are out riding our bikes. A little more time together might be a good thing.

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