I spend a lot of time reading about cycling, and a lot of time riding my bike. I spend much less time in cars than I in either of those situations. However, recently, I had something of a revelation.
A lot of us in the cycling world get really angry about what we perceive as the arrogant, 'we-own-the-road,' 'you're slowing us down' mentality that drivers seem to adopt when they encounter us. For a long time, I felt the same way — convinced that it comes down to arrogance and so forth.
Then, while riding in my room mate's car not long ago, I realized something: maybe what really underpins the whole problem is that simply being in cars is stressful.
What I mean is that, often, otherwise good, kind, and decent human beings (drivers and passengers alike) appear to turn into spoiled toddlers once they step into their cars. They refuse to slow down to allow other drivers to change lanes, or to let someone pass, or to get out of the way of oncoming emergency vehicles (in my experience, this is a much bigger problem around here than aggression towards cyclists; indeed, confident, predictable cyclists have it good around here). Even sitting still in a parking lot, their blood pressure jumps a few points.
Perhaps it's the sense of being enclosed and, to some extent, at the mercy not only of your own big metal box, but all those other big metal boxes around you. Perhaps it's the result of a lifetime of exposure to traffic-related horror stories. Certainly, there's the element of worry about causing harm to someone else by accident — which, for many of us, expresses itself as rancor towards those who don't seem to be doing everything they can to prevent us from accidentally causing them harm.
We cyclists sometimes forget that for every driver expressing rage towards or menacing a cyclist, there are probably four or five drivers raging at other drivers — never mind the untold numbers taking it out on their passengers or on pedestrians.
I suspect it comes down to adrenaline. I can say from experience that adrenaline turns most of us into jerks.
Once, nearly ten years ago, when riding with my friend Robert in Lexington, I managed to involve myself in a hard, fast, and somewhat theatrical crash involving my bike, an inconveniently-located trash can, and a stone wall (this, by the way, is another good reason not to ride on the sidewalk: obstacles).
We had been sailing along at a good clip — either racing or just being speed freaks. I swerved to avoid something and caromed off one of those big city-issued garbage carts, which flung me hard to the right and into a stone wall. I was still half-mounted on the bike, and had enough momentum going that I slid for a goodly distance along the face of the wall before my bike and I landed in a heap. A smart person would probably have at least assessed himself before getting up; I'm an idiot, so I got back on my feet, assessed my bike for damage, and made to head back out (this time on the road).
At this point, Robert looked horrified and said something like, "Are you sure you should really be riding?" or something along those lines -- something extremely sensible, in fact, because it was a nasty fall. I picked an embedded rock out of my elbow (I still have the scar) and snarled at him furiously.
Not much later I realized it had been the adrenaline talking. Unfortunately, I don't remember whether I had the brass to apologize right away, or let it fester for a while first.
The point is, adrenaline makes us stronger, faster, sharper, immune to pain — and a whole heck of a lot meaner. And, at any given time, a significant proportion of motorists are likely stressed enough to be buzzing on at least a little of the stuff. The worst part is that being cool and competent behind the wheel is considered part of being an acceptably well-adjusted adult in the United States, so few of us are willing to admit it. However, it does offer a very plausible explanation for surprising transformation of school teachers, choir leaders, and little old ladies into rabid wolverines when they step behind the wheel.
I don't know if my theory is right. I could be totally wrong. However, believing it makes it a little easier for me to do my end of the work — remembering that all those menacing autos are full of my co-workers, friends, fellow ValuMarket shoppers and Qdoba junkies, and sometimes even other cyclists. Remembering that, in turn, makes it easier for me to forgive accidental transgressions (and, indeed, to see them as accidental transgressions) and to keep my cool when a driver acts like an aggressive, self-important jerk.
Just for the record, though: if you act like an aggressive jerk behind the wheel while sporting a "Share the Road" license plate, all bets are off }:)