Bicycle Network: Women's Cycling
Wield your words well
Road rage is unpleasant for bike riders and motorists alike, but Em Weekes found that sometimes speaking your mind is the best antidote to a sticky situation
When a girlfriend revealed she had discovered an empowering way to combat the challenge of cycling in heavy traffic, my ears pricked up.
We’d often talked about feeling powerless on the road when drivers came within kissing distance and then swiftly sped off. Getting angry only seemed to fuel their fury. But what could we do?
Responding to threat
For many women, the fear of physical threat doesn’t simply vanish because we’re on two wheels. When cycling alone or on a dimly-lit street, I’m acutely aware of my surroundings.
Confronting an aggressive driver is the kind of scenario many of us have been taught to avoid at all costs. Instead, we cycle on, silently fuming until we can offload our frustrations to anyone who’ll listen.
After a close call on Collins St one weekday afternoon, my friend Emily, a casual commuter cyclist, decided to approach the offending driver. She thought that by expressing her concern, she might be able to soften their initial encounter.
Following the car for a few blocks, Emily searched for the right words. At a red light, she gently tapped on the driver’s window and said, “Did you see me back there? You really scared me. I’m more vulnerable than you are. Please try to look out for cyclists.”
The driver was stunned – but receptive. He nodded his head, apologised and promised to keep an eye out for bikes from now on.
I was gob-smacked. To think that a simple string of sentences, delivered calmly and articulately, could convey our fear as bike riders – to such empowering effect. It seemed a breakthrough to be able to use words and feelings in what might have been a nasty confrontation.
Emily’s tale certainly describes a best-case scenario. Negative stereotypes of both bike riders and drivers abound on the road. Some riders pound their fists on offending car bonnets as they sail through the traffic; some drivers shout obscenities when slowed down by bike riders.
I later tried Emily’s tactful trick when a car careered by me in a designated bike lane. As I gently knocked on the window and began to deliver my carefully crafted spiel, the female driver spoke first.
“You’re lucky I didn’t kill you!” she shouted. It was hardly the response I expected, especially peppered as it was with derogatory slurs against women.
I pulled off the road, shaken and shocked. I’d worked hard to calm my rattled nerves and even practiced my neutral “excuse me, but you nearly hit me” tone of voice. Naively, I’d hoped for a reception just like Emily’s.
In hindsight, mine was a close call of a different kind. We never know who’s behind the wheel and what state of mind they’re in. Thankfully I’ve plenty of memories of drivers who’ve offered a glance, a smile or an ‘after you’ gesture when sharing the road with bike riders.
But if you balance the risk of receiving further insult to your shaken-up state, with the possibility of sharing an insightful moment with a receptive stranger – you might just sit a little taller on the ride home.
This article first appeared in Bicycle Network Victoria's Ride On magazine, October-November 2008
What you can do if you experience harassment on the road.