Middle fingers don’t lead to productive dialogue and other lessons from my road rage interaction

new bike lane on Naito
When too close leads to up-close.
(Photo © J. Maus)

The other day riding home from work I had an interesting interaction.

I was riding my bike up N. Mississippi Ave. just past Widmer Brewing (map) when I noticed a big car door swing open ahead of me. Without making a sudden move, I positioned myself into the center of the lane to avoid the hazard. A few seconds later I heard the all too familiar roar of a car engine. Soon, just a few inches from my thigh, a car buzzed angrily by. It was obviously done on purpose (trust me, I’ve been riding on city streets long enough to know).

I was operating completely within the law. I was on a small side street were traffic should move slowly. There was no need for this man in the car to pass me like that. I was angry. So, in order to make sure I got the guy’s attention, I looked square into his rear-view mirror and flipped him off.

Now, I realize in hindsight I shouldn’t have done that — but my anger, mixed with wanting to make sure he noticed me, somehow automatically produced a middle finger.

“You wanna flip me off!? You wanna flip me off?! You flip me off, I’ll run you over!!”
— Last words from a guy who equates the action of being flipped off with serious bodily harm caused by plowing a 3,000 pound vehicle into a human body

Suffice it to say my gesture didn’t go over well.

He immediately slammed on his brakes and stopped right in the middle of the road. Before he could get out of his car, I had rolled over to his driver-side window. I was looking forward to talking with him about what had just transpired.

Unfortunately, I think my middle finger dashed any hopes of a productive dialogue.

The man was visibly angry and was trying to unbuckle his seat belt (my bike was right next to his door so he couldn’t swing it open). I was smiling and calm. He yelled, “You were riding in the middle the street!” I replied (with a smile), “Yes I know, did you see that car door I was trying to avoid?” Not sure if he heard me or cared because he then started saying, “You wanna flip me off!? You wanna flip me off?! You flip me off, I’ll run you over!!”

I have no doubt that if I would have matched his level of anger he would have assaulted me right there in the street. But, because I did nothing further to provoke him, he turned away and sped off.

The interaction spurred a lot of thoughts.

What would have been a better way for both of us to respond? Should I notify the police about him almost hitting me and then threatening to run me over?

I got some good advice right away via friends on Facebook and Twitter. One person said, “The peace sign only takes one more finger.” I liked that one.

Others wondered if I’d gotten the license plate number (I didn’t). I think because I flipped the bird and feel like the man’s aggression — while not warranted — was on some level understandable, I was less inclined to want to pursue the matter.

I did however give Officer Robert Pickett, our bicycle issue liaison at the Police Bureau, a phone call. He recommended that in the future, if I feel someone is a “menacing vehicle operator,” I should call 911 and report them. But first, he suggested, “get yourself safe.” It’s also helpful to document or remember the following information:

If I was upset at being buzzed closely and that’s all that happened, Pickett says I could have called it in. He said there’s no guarantee they’d respond to it in force, but it’s worth a try. “It [the police response] depends on a variety of factors… It could come out over the air as a reckless driver and if there happens to be an officer nearby they’ll keep an eye out… But having them run a plate, track them down, and go to their house probably wouldn’t happen.” Given how stretched our police force is, that’s understandable.

Pickett also reminded me — in his reasonable and diplomatic style — that I should think of a way to communicate with other road users that doesn’t escalate emotions so quickly. I agree, but if my goal was to have the guy stop and chat, is there really any other gesture that would cut through the fog as quickly as a middle finger?

I learned a lot in this encounter as it was the most up-close and personal road rage situation I’ve ever been in. I’d love to hear how others respond to being purposely buzzed by another vehicle operator (I’ve almost flipped off other people on bikes that pass close without warning!). For me, I guess I’ve got to re-program my brain and remember that “The peace sign only takes one more finger.”

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