Sunday, February 17, 2013

Errandonnee - too close for comfort

In almost 20 years of bicycle commuting, I've had a total of two close calls with cars.

the day after, and generally considered to be the "good" part of town

Last night:
Slowly creeping up behind me was one pair of lights, while another pair of lights was approached in the oncoming lane. Holding my line, where the right car tires would drive, I heard the car closing in. Assuming they would pass when able, I kept riding. Screaming and yelling, directed at me, began and I cautiously held my ground. The screaming persisted and got closer and louder, and I went as far right as possible without entering the gravel/slush ice zone. My eyes on the path directly in front of the bike, I'm still not sure how close they got to me.

As soon as the oncoming car was clear, the screamers passed. Imagine my relief when they passed, and I was untouched. Shock. I could breathe. I read the plate out loud and repeated it out loud. Over. And over. And over. For the next two blocks. Then, I saw the car pull over and park.

Rolling up to the vehicle, I stopped parallel to the driver's side door. I slowly peeled off my mittens, removed my bicycle headlight, knocked on the driver's window, waited, and wondered what I was going to say. Nothing. I knocked a couple of more times before someone in the backseat rolled down the window.

I shone my light in the car. Kids. They were just kids. Three teenaged girls sat shoulder to shoulder, two of which had their faces buried in their phones. The people in the front seat never rolled down their windows or showed their faces (and the windows were tinted so I couldn't see in). I told them that I know Montana laws, and that bicyclists have the same rights to the roads as cars. But they seemed surprised when I told them. I know they didn’t hit me, maim me, or kill me. But they seemed surprised when I told them that cars can kill bicyclists. I was looking at their faces, and occasionally one would return my gaze. It occurred to me, "Wow, they really don't give a $&%#."

Then I said the license plate number out loud, and asked if I needed to call the owner of the vehicle. Suddenly, I had the full attention of the back seat. Phones in laps, thumbs still, all eyes on me. That's when I started trembling, repeating to them that they could have killed me. One of them started rambling and talking quickly (like teenagers do). I honestly don't remember what she said other than their actions were "ignorant" and she kept asking me "so are you just passing through town?". I assured her that I lived in town, and that they could have killed me.

I asked them if they were all teenagers. Yes. I reminded them that teenagers have a horrible reputation in our town. They agreed. I told them how I've been defending them (I think they do get a bad rap, and the town doesn't do much to support teens). And here they were screaming at me, and they could've killed me. I told them I hoped they never encounter a car of people that treated them they way they treated me. Telling them to have a safe weekend, I returned the light to my handlebars, put on my mittens, and rode home.

Returning home and trembling for another hour, I couldn't stop thinking about other bicyclists' stories: bicyclists being hit by SUVs, resorting to recording every ride on camera for evidence, wondering if it's even worth picking up the phone if no one was injured. What is happening? Are roads getting more unsafe?

We are all responsible for each other. Ultimately, a reckless, aggressive, or careless driver is a danger to everyone, not just the bicyclists. So, expecting very little (since I wasn't injured nor my property damaged), I called the police. Ideally, I just wanted the parents to be notified of what their kids were doing.

The officer listened to my story. He would locate the driver and if they admitted guilt he would go from there. If they denied it, he would take my statement and ticket them with reckless driving. Fine with me.

Following up with the officer, I learned he was able to track down the car last night. Allegedly, there was one screamer, and she was not in the vehicle. He told them a license is a responsibility. He told them we don't have bike lanes in our town, so cars need to yield to bicycles as if they were pedestrians. He told the driver that, as the driver, she was responsible for the actions of everyone in the vehicle. He also knows the driver's parents, and told them what had happened as well.

I am extremely grateful to that officer for taking me seriously.

FAQs (sans questions):

I am a conservative rider and a vehicular cyclist. My bike is legal for night riding having the proper lighting, plus reflectors which aren't even required. I wear a helmet, even though it isn't required by law. I ride on studded snow tires, and I use hand signals. I am cautious.

I don't ride in the parking lane:
  • It's a parking lane.
  • I'm a vehicular cyclist. 
  • Unpredictable riding by darting in and out of parking spaces is dangerous.
  • There is a lot of loose gravel and sand on the sides of the road (the county sands the roads, rather than plowing).
  • There is snow, ice, and (perhaps the worst for me) slushy snow covered ice in the parking lanes.


  1. I'm sorry you had that terrible experience that thankfully did not result in injury. You did the right thing in talking to them and trying to make them see the danger in their actions. I hate confronting motorists and it always leaves me feeling shaken up. It is good to see that the police officer took your complaint seriously.

    On a less grave note, I like your longtail bike. I am thinking about putting one together myself sometime in the future.

  2. Thanks for your kind words of support, I really appreciate them.

    And thanks! The longtail is a pretty fun ride.

  3. Those kids! Gah! I am so impressed by your reaction. I don't think I could have been even 10% that composed under similar pressure. Hoping neither of us (nor any bicycler) ever has to face a situation like this again, but I'll remember all these details in case I need to emulate you.

    1. Thanks, that's awfully kind. My friend once told me a story where she had something similar happen (only it was in Wisconsin, and daylight). I was blown away when she told me she followed the car to talk to the driver. Completely slack-jawed at her response, and secretly hoped I could be so brave to face a driver after being harassed. I guess I must've channelled her a bit that night.

  4. And now we can channel you! This is a great post and you did a great job.

    1. Thanks, Kath. I really appreciate the support.