Road rage incident sparks media frenzy, spurs us-them mentality

This is the newsstand edition of today’s Oregonian.

“Cyclist clubs driver with his bike”

“Bike-car clash morphs into melee: Police say a drunken cyclist used his ride to club a motorist as a mob formed”.

These are the front-page, above-the-fold, lead headlines in the Oregonian today that have quickly caused a frenzy in the local media and among many Portlanders since reported by the Oregonian last night.

Here’s the opening line:

“The cultural clash between Portland bicyclists and motorists took a surreal turn Sunday night when a motorist involved in a tiff with a bicycle rider turned out to be a long-time advocate for cycling.”

The situation involved a man in a car, Colin Yates, who was driving in Southeast Portland and then got into an altercation after he chided a guy on a bike, Mike Steven McAtee, for blowing a stop light.

(The story reminds me of when I got flipped off for doing the same thing — except I was on my bike.)

McAtee’s booking photo.

Yates and McAtee reportedly met up a few blocks later, things escalated, and a melee ensued. Since the incident took place on one of Portland’s busiest bikeways, according to the Oregonian story, many other people (the “angry bicyclists” as the Oregonian referred to them) stopped and stood around while things unfolded. McAtee was reportedly very upset and confrontational, perhaps spurred on by the fact that he was allegedly intoxicated.

McAtee was ultimately charged with third-degree assault, criminal mischief, driving under the influence of intoxicants and disorderly conduct.

Officer Robert Pickett (a regular contributor to is quoted in the story as saying, “It’s almost kind of quintessentially a Portland thing.” This quote is being misunderstood. I believe Pickett is referring to the fact that even the person driving the car was someone who also regularly rides a bike (which is illustrative of how many people ride in Portland), not that McAtee’s reaction (or the resulting incident) was normal for Portland or somehow indicative of the community in general.

Not surprisingly, based largely on the way the story was reported, comments on the Oregonian’s online story (and letters to the editor will no doubt take a similar tone) are rife with the same anger and venom we have seen many times in the past.

“Portland bicycling community seriously needs to try to reign in these outlaws.”

“Typical stupid bicyclist. They break the law, you call them on it and they flip out. Too bad he didn’t get beat up some more.”

One commenter even posits that I’m purposely keeping quiet on the story:

“Convenient time for the forums to be “down for maintenance… “We’ll be back soon” (after our extremist sub-culture’s media exposure on this event has passed)”

A bike/car road rage fight would have been enough red meat, but the fact that Yates (the guy in the car) is a self-described “bike advocate for more than 30 years,” and the fact that McAtee was allegedly drinking and seems to have gone ballistic (swinging his bike like a weapon toward Yates), are a story that is simply irresistible to the local media.

This incident is unfortunate on many levels.

First, let’s remember that the Oregonian reporter was not on the scene. The source of her information should be kept in mind as you read the story.

Most troubling to me is the fact that it will be covered so broadly in the local media (so far this morning I’ve already done interviews with KPAM and KINK radio morning shows). Why does this bother me? Is it because I don’t want to face the music that some Portlanders have bad traffic etiquette? No.

One fact is that I am contacted frequently by people on bikes who are the victims of road rage and near-misses. They call or email me after being run off the road or being scared by the intentionally aggressive behavior of someone else on the road. I rarely cover these stories, in part because it is so common, but also because I realize interactions between road users is a part of being in traffic.

It’s similar to how I don’t cover all the bike/car collisions I hear about. They are unfortunate, but they are expected outcomes of sharing the road (and hopefully they’ll happen less as we learn more about multi-modal street designs).

But more importantly, I do not see the world from the view of someone being a “bicyclist” or a “motorist”. Close readers of this site will notice that for several months now I have never used the terms myself.

I feel that the “-ists” are nothing more than labels and that they only lead toward more us vs. them reactions.

I am not a bicyclist or a motorist, I am a person. I hope someday everyone begins to understand that the way we choose to move around the city does not define who we are.

I also look forward to the day when an argument in the street between two people (even if they are both, gasp, “cyclists!”) does not end up all over the news.

[Editor’s note: I heard about this incident right after it happened, but I was working on another story and decided not to follow up on it right away.]

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