The Overwhelming Majority of Drivers Don't Want to Hurt You

Last month in San Francisco we covered the shocking story of a man who went on a rampage and ran down four cyclists. While that kind of pathological behavior is rare, those of us who pedal through traffic-choked streets every day know it doesn’t take much for a driver to get angry behind the wheel and cause a great deal of harm, whether it’s careless or intentional.

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we turn to Canada, where Biking Toronto begins a 10-part series on the "10 Secrets to Cycling with Traffic." Even though many cyclists sometimes feel like drivers are out to get us, whizzing by with tempers flaring, riding with traffic can be less intimidating when you think about the human being behind the wheel:

They may not be your biggest fan, and they may think you are in their way, that you are too slow, that you don’t belong on the road, and they may be a bit jealous of your tight cycling butt, but most of them are not homicidal.

They may seem scary because they are seeing things from a drivers’ perspective, and often have not given much thought to how vulnerable cyclists are. The vast majority of drivers don’t want to kill you… they just don’t understand you.  As well, the very LAST thing 99.99% of drivers want to do is hurt someone.

A lot of drivers are also cyclists (and vice-versa) and don’t want to be in a collision with you.

I bet any cyclist you know with a drivers license can tell you that knowing things from a cyclists’ perspective has made them a much better driver.

Knowing this one thing will give you a lot of confidence.

Good advice, but I also can’t help wondering how many more people would feel comfortable following it if urban motorists consistently drove in the range of 20 mph, the speed limit that’s currently sweeping Britain.

Elsewhere around the network, Market Street Railway offers up a historical piece marking the three-year anniversary of San Francisco’s T-Third light-rail line, the Greater Philadelphia Bicycle Coalition is frustrated by the lack of progress on a bike-share program, and Yonah Freemark examines lower-cost high-speed rail in France.

  • Doug

    A person can have benign intentions and still do harm. Driving poorly is reckless enough that they might as well be out to kill you. In fact, there is a term for it: manslaughter.

  • Doug

    That said, riding with confidence is the number one best way to stay alive. Take the lane, keep the lane.

  • Andy B from Jersey

    They might not want to hurt you but many driver’s gross incompetence and flagrant and willful flouting of the laws that are intended to govern the rules of the road, make many drivers nearly as dangerous as those who would intentionally hurt you.

    Try this. Count how many traffic violation you can observe on a busy stretch of roadway in a one to five minute interval. It is likely that you will observe at least a dozen if not several times more. I once saw a driver commit 4 infractions in a matter of 5 seconds, nearly enough to lose their license. Just the other day while driving, I watch a willfully reckless driver commit about 48 points of moving violations (enough to lose their license 4 times over) in less than 3 minutes including, 8 lane changes without a signal, speeding, 2 dangerous lane changes (careless driving), 6 cases of tailgating, and passing in the shoulder which I would equate with reckless driving.

    After observing and becoming aware of the magnitude of the number of horrible and in some cases willfully violent drivers, I’m more amazed than ever that I haven’t been seriously injured by a driver while riding my bike, walking or even driving.

  • Glenn

    If there is a bike lane, use it. If there is not a bike lane, take the right or left lane. All those people behind you that are honking are proof positive that you are calming traffic to much lower speeds that won’t kill you or pedestrians. They are so used to speeding that 20 mph feels like a crawl. In the mean time, you reduced the kill rate for that vehicle from about 80% to 20% if it hits a person.

  • ddartley

    The point of the article is right, and like what Glenn says, it’s the very reason that you should, in a lot of situations, take a whole lane.

    I do it all the time and I know that I am more visible as a result, and therefore safer. And there’s nowhere near the amount of honking that might expect. Hardly any, actually. Once in a while.

  • neff

    Color me unsurprised that cyclists still think of themselves and drivers as the only two types of people out there, given that cyclists seem to take little to no notice of pedestrians whatsoever until the moment they mow one of us down in a crosswalk

  • jsd

    The overwhelming number of drivers don’t want to hurt you

    But they don’t particularly care for you either.

  • Between the marginalization of cycling as a mode of transportation in North America, the aggressiveness drivers, and good old fashioned adrenaline, I feel that I can lose my grip on reality while I’m cycling. If you randomly stopped me on my bike on a particularly bad day, I may very well say, “Yes, every single person who operates an automobile is a horrible human being. The fact that they walked out their door this morning and consciously chose a mode of transportation which has a comparatively high likelihood of ending a human life is all the proof I need that every single one of them is a sociopath.”

    When I’m not mounted on my adrenaline high-horse, but I’m still in New York, amongst my friends who ride bikes and/or take public transit, I still don’t have too many nice things to say about the selfish assholes that pop out of a little tube from New Jersey and start demanding that they be allocated a disproportionate amount of public space in my city.

    Then I occasionally leave New York. I know, it can be frustrating, but we all do it from time to time. And the truth is, outside of New York, the vast majority of Americans, regardless of how progressive their world view may be otherwise, do indeed use an automobile for daily transportation purposes. Extended family, old friends, and so on and so forth… They’re motorists.

    The idea is that, for all intense and purposes, outside of New York, “American” and “Motorist” are near-synonymous terms. And I said before that when I’m all high on my cycling-induced adrenaline rush, I might even say that all motorists are sociopaths. But do I believe that all Americans are sociopaths? No, that would be both absurd and self-alienating. Can I remember this more level-headed perspective when I’m out in traffic? I try, but sometimes it gets rough out there.

  • Nate Briggs

    I have been preaching about this topic for years – almost since the very first year I began riding.

    Two fundamental truths govern my bicycle time in urban traffic:

    1) NO ONE wants to hit you. They don’t want the trouble, the court date, the lawsuit, the chance that they will be hunted down as a hit-and-run criminal, the notice in the newspaper, etc.

    2) Everyone on the street is in a terrible, terrible hurry. Even motorists on the way to a triple root canal cannot abide any kind of delay.

    It is the bicycle rider’s task to successfully work within these parameters.

    – Nate (SLC)

  • I think the liklihood of being honked at, tailgated, or passed in a dangerous or intimidating manner by an irate motorist in retaliation for taking the lane depends largely on how fast you’re riding. It is only occasional at 15+ MPH, but it is far more common at slower speeds. It takes at least several months and for many folks years of riding before they are comfortable taking the lane in busy urban traffic at 15+ MPH.

    For those not yet comfortable taking the lane at 15+ MPH, painted bike lanes are an alternative, but most of them are in the door zone and for this reason not safe at speeds over ~8 MPH.

    Hopefully, the growing network of protected bike paths will the incubator that will fill the infrastructural gap between 8 and 15 MPH riding, and help grow the population of cyclists who feel comfortable riding with traffic on all city roads in a way that doesn’t cause undue friction with motorists.

  • Doug

    What about pedestrians? As soon as I moved to Cambridge, MA from NYC and realized I didn’t have to fight just to stay alive in the street, I stopped running lights, too. And in places where peds aren’t getting mowed down for crossing the street, they stop jaywalking so cavalierly.

  • dporpentine

    Personally, I don’t think “confidence” matters as much as speed. Everything else being equal, Confident Biking Me going 10 mph is the object of much more dangerous driver behavior than Confident Biking Me doing 20. And of course going 20 mph on a bike is dangerous here, thanks to the terrible roads, the car doors, the pedestrians, bikers who run lights, etc. So it’s a vicious circle.

  • dporpentine

    Following up on my own comment, which was written before I saw BicycleOnly’s: of course at a certain level confidence is needed just to be willing to go 20 mph. But I don’t think that confidence per se is the issue. Drivers just respect bikes more if they’re moving faster–because they’re more car-like.

  • Alex B.

    While it’s true that almost no drivers are trying to injure you with their car, they still are harming you (and themselves) by choosing to drive. Everyone knows that operating a car produces harmful gasses and particulate matters – and not even the climate changing gasses that some people don’t “believe” in – I’m talking about smog, which everyone knows is caused by cars and is bad for you.

    People may choose not to think about it (itself a moral decision), but when somebody chooses to drive, they are choosing to put their own convenience ahead of the health of others. Even in this world of moral relativism, I think that most people would agree that is selfish, if not evil.

  • ZA

    My $0.02:

    1. Cyclists don’t want to be hit
    2. Drivers don’t want the legal liability of hitting a bicyclist (and congestion and ubiquitous cameraphones prevents easy flight where their moral courage may fail)

    The conflicts that have arisen are sourced to a common failure of designing and building for both (and the many other) road users.

    The area of common interest should therefore be in re-designing the space, its laws, and its enforcement. Whether bike volumes are high enough to warrant a bike traffic light, or a row of parked cars can be moved to create a dooring-free bike lane, or a stop sign should be replaced with a yield are strongly local issues … but I think almost everyone can agree that the current mix isn’t working well, and negotiating better changes needs to take place.

  • gecko

    20 mph is a good safe speed for both auto drivers and cyclists.

    Of course, it is more difficult to maintain this speed for cyclists unless going down hill or with a strong tail wind but in general, it is probably the upper limit that freewheeling personal vehicles should be safely going especially if other travelers are around such as pedestrians, skate boarders, small scooters, skaters, etc.

    After 20 mph certain mechanical collision avoidance infrastructure and accommodations should be in place to prevent accidents.

    The idea of the importance and benefits of freewheeling is way overblown (maybe almost like free will) and a source of a lot of the danger of travel. On crowded urban streets the safe degrees of freedom are in actuality quite limited; and especially, for cars which are so large; buses and trucks are absolutely ridiculous.

  • john

    They may not want to hurt you but most just don’t want you there either:
    http://rogerkramercycling.org/blog/?p=1332

  • Intentional or accidental, the blood tastes the same.

  • Nick

    A related concept is:

    “A good driver is a cyclist’s best friend on the road.”

    Example: if one driver allows you to safely take the lane, it forces the 10 drivers behind them to slow down. But if that first driver cuts you off, it means the other 10 drivers will cut you off too (monkey see, monkey do).

    This concept needs to be stressed to drivers in urban environments. There’s enough sympathetic drivers to make this a common practice.

  • Ryan Lee

    I got re-ended sunday at a stop sign while on my bike. I was easing out into traffic slowly to cross the street (delivery van was blocking the view of on-coming traffic) and the SUV guy behind me was doing the same and accidently, but forcefully, bumped me rear wheel. I turn around looking a little perplexed and the guy waves kindly as if to say, “Ooops, sorry! Wasn’t paying attention.”

    The rear-ending, exactly why bumpers were invented, didn’t knock me off but I suppose it could have if my balance was compromised.

    True story.

  • I had a taxi driver do the same thing to me. He said he didn’t expect me to stop…

  • sacha in san francisco

    If cars are speeding past me very close, I just wiggle my bike a little like a new unstable rider and the next thing you know, they all slow down behind me and wait until they can safely pass in the other lane with a wide space between us. Works everytime.

  • Adrian

    They don’t want to hurt you, but they also don’t want to have to drive in a way that guarantees your safety. That would require them to go slower, give everything they do a greater margin for error, and keep a constant lookout for bikes even when though bikes may be rare in their part of the world. The existence of a cyclist on the road is seen by them as a demand to drive more carefully, and they resent that demand.

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