An Expression on My Face

The other day I was riding home from work, minding my own business, when up ahead of me I see a minivan suddenly pull out from the right and abruptly stop, partially blocking the traffic lane and fully blocking the bike lane. This was during rush hour and the result was a half dozen motorists, and me on my bike, slamming on our brakes to avoid a collision. The errant driver threw her vehicle in reverse and cleared the traffic lane, but she didn’t back up far enough to clear the bike lane. I was forced to make a quick move and flick out into the main flow of traffic to avoid hitting her, nearly getting clobbered by the truck behind me in the process. Needless to say, I was none too happy about these developments, but I maintained my composure and only glanced at her out of the corner of my eye as I passed in front of the van. I don’t know what she saw in that quick glance, but as I looked back she was giving me the two-handed, one-fingered salute and screaming obscenities at the top of her lungs, red faced and spit a’ flyin’. Either I’m no good at hiding what I’m thinking or she is particularly adept at reading subtle expressions on faces. In any case, it appears she somehow got the message that I thought I was keeping to myself… :-)

21 Responses to “An Expression on My Face”

  • MikeOnBike says:

    Alan said “I was forced to make a quick move and flick out into the main flow of traffic to avoid hitting her, nearly getting clobbered by the truck behind me in the process.”

    Stopping wasn’t an option?

  • Thom says:

    Alan, I find that when riding in traffic, especially heavy traffic, I unconciously ride with a very nasty expression on my face, very similar to the one I adopted while living on the South Side of Chicago–a “don’t f*ck with me” face that has been known to scare the ever-loving crap out of my friends who typically know me to be very mellow. Perhaps you have a similar expression?

  • Alan says:

    @MikeOnBike

    “Stopping wasn’t an option?”

    Not really. It appeared she was going to back up out of the way before she abruptly stopped short. By that point I was pretty much committed.

  • Alan says:

    @Thom

    “Perhaps you have a similar expression?”

    Quite possibly. Even though I wasn’t purposely attempting to send a message, I’m pretty sure the expression on my face at that moment wasn’t a pleasant one… LOL.

  • anon says:

    You looked at her. In some societies (like prison) that’s all it takes. Plus you’re a cyclist, and in some societies (like USA) that’s all it takes too. That may explain why you got 2 fingers. But the red face and spit and obscenities combined with 2 fingers might have meant that she wanted to drink tequila with you. (Weak joke, trying to laugh it off, what else can you do?)

  • Donald Moore says:

    Al
    In the U S A “Bigger is better.” so guess where that puts all cyclists?
    Don

  • Bob says:

    Here’s a stab at understanding the driver’s behavior:

    Reading other people is frequently problematic in social situations, as a general rule. Especially when we’re out of our normal context (in another country, a different peer group, whatever), an errant glance could be misconstrued a number of different ways.

    Cars exacerbate this in several different ways.

    We can’t hear, our vision is limited, even senses of smell and feeling, whatever they may count for in social situations, are dulled. In a car, we are constantly out of context, out of touch with the mood of a situation and the people around us. It becomes much harder to understand others’ actions. Is that pedestrian waiting for me to pass? Did that car gun its engine in hostility, or was it a broken muffler? et cetera.

    Then, driving in a car makes all of this happen much faster than we’re normally wired to go, forcing snap judgments and eliminating feedback. For example, due to the factors mentioned above, you might cut someone off because you misjudged their speed– and you might not even notice. It’s quite probable that you’ll never even see the person you cut off again.

    Finally, driving divides our attention and generally stresses us out. Anyone who’s been stuck in traffic in a car knows how hard it can be to stay calm.

    In this “driver’s state”– distracted, stressed, starved of information, forced to make snap judgments, without perceived consequences– it becomes easier to see how this woman’s type of behavior can occur.

    There are two steps. First, the woman misinterprets the cyclist’s action and expression. The swerve and the scowl. Being distracted, she might feel that she hadn’t noticed the extent of it, perhaps thinking that maybe the cyclist had yelled before. Because the moment happens so quickly, she makes an immediate judgment that the cyclist is belligerent, perhaps harassing her.

    Second, because she is stressed out, and because there are few perceived consequences for her actions, she feels safe to respond in a way that she sees as in kind– with further belligerence and harassment.

    It’s the snap-judgment part that irks me as a cyclist. Because all of the people in their cars are completely stuck in their own worlds, they judge cyclist action completely differently. The move that Alan made, for a lot of drivers, might not have been a big deal. Personally, for example, I find that half of the drivers I encounter at four-way stops expect me to blow the sign, and half do not. If I blow the sign, I’m likely to get honked at for it. But if I yield, I actually frequently encounter drivers who get mad at me for wasting their time, since they expected me to blow through and have now stopped.

    The fact is, cars are extremely unpredictable around bikes. The same, lawful behavior– for example, taking the lane and waiting at a traffic light– can draw hundreds of different reactions. As cycling advocates, we like to say that taking the lane and following the law is all you need to do to be a safe cyclist. But the world on the road can be surprisingly, disturbingly unpredictable, and acting lawfully and predictably when traffic itself is so unpredictable can become a tall order very fast.

  • Helton says:

    I think the problem wasn’t YOU specifically. Perhaps the lady was so upset she needed to throw her rage on the nearest scapegoat avaliable.

    It’s a pity the way our society and our automobiles are conceived (to work as fast as it is reasonably possible) put such a burden on people as a side-effect.

    But I admire you by not falling in temptation to express your inner feelings in a more explicit fashion: It would be a very positive feedback with very potentially negative outcomes.

    Helton

  • Scott Wayland says:

    Her meds had worn off. Or kicked in? She was obviously in the wrong, so she lashed out. Biotch.

    Ride safe, amigo.

    Scott

  • doug says:

    it’s always hard to say what ticks people off. the situations in which i have receive the worst abuse are situations in which my riding is totally non-offensive. when i do ride like a banshee, which isn’t often, it seems people are too stunned to react seriously, instead offering feeble horn bleets of protest.

    also, i make fierce eye contact far too often. not because the eye contact is too fierce, but because making eye contact is in no way a guarantee that the driver registered my presence as a human being riding a bicycle and will react accordingly, i.e. not running me down.

  • Alan says:

    I’m sure embarrassment played a major role in her reaction. There’s a very real possibility she was under the influence as well; I still haven’t figured out exactly why she rolled out and blocked traffic. Thanks for your responses.

    Alan

  • Croupier says:

    Jeez, sometimes with these drivers… it’s like the Special Olympics or something.

  • Gavin says:

    Sometimes that concentrated, “trying to ride without dying” expression, especially in a situation like this can be misinterpreted. I know that even if my look in a pinch like the one you described didn’t convey any direct ill will, it might say “OK, fruitbat, do not move that metal missile an inch until I am well down the road.

    I have run into a bulging handful of motorists that seem to think that cyclists should stop or yield, and get out of the way simply because they are there and they are in a car.

  • Chris says:

    I’ve perfected the art of riding no hands, as I have to respond with my 2 strait fingered salute. This is after being cut off with 2 inches to spare and given a finger at the same time. My anger lasts 5 minutes tops as I have to get on with life.

  • Frank Gonzalez says:

    Alan,

    I admire your effort. It has been more than 10 years since I’ve commuted by bike and have mellowed out quite a bit since then… but in my younger days when drivers ran me off the road, the adrenaline would take over and would catch up to them and bang on their cars with everything I had. I’m planning to get back on the road to at least partly commuting by bike and I hope that my maturity will keep me from going overboard. Other than that… you’re human… not an automaton and feelings are neight good or bad, unless we act on them… But we can fantasize can’t we? 8-) BTW: I’m in Miami… Purgatory for cyclists…

  • Perry says:

    It probably had nothing to do with you. Just mad at the world and feeling sorry for herself, no doubt. I have a theory:

    99%+ of all humans would never intentionally harm another human. The reasons for this are many and complicated. BUT, 99% OF THOSE 99% are selfish and self-centered to one degree or another (I include myself here). The reasons for this are also many and complicated.

    In living our selfish and self-centered lives, we often bring UNINTENTIONAL harm to others. Of course, the harm is not lessened because is was inflicted unintentionally. A broken bone or hurt feelings hurt just as much.

    But of course, much like cigars, sometimes and accident is just an accident.

  • Alan says:

    @Perry

    It is worth noting however, that even though others in automobiles were clearly expressing much anger toward her with horns and gestures, she chose to target the lone bicyclist with her tirade. I don’t believe the choice was unintentional; I think she did it because the bicyclist was the most vulnerable and least intimidating target within view.

  • Perry says:

    @Alan: That’s not exactly what I meant. It’s definitely a case of picking on a cyclist but many acts themselves (such as the initial act of pulling out and stopping in the bike lane) was is general act of selfish disregard for others. But I agree that it is easier to pick in a cyclist and the reasons for that are obvious and have been discussed here before.

  • Alan says:

    @Perry

    Sorry about misreading your comment (I think I did it because I’m still focusing on the details of the specific incident). I do agree with what you’re saying.. :-)

  • Perry says:

    @Alan: No problem. I often “lose my focus” reading web comments after drivers try to run me off the road and then flip me the bird. ;-)

  • Alan says:

    “I often “lose my focus” reading web comments after drivers try to run me off the road and then flip me the bird. ;-)”

    LOL…

 
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