Episode 107: Is It Worth It To Confront Drivers?
Sarah Goodyear: Just a heads up that this episode contains some mature language. Listener discretion is advised.
Aaron Naparstek: Okay, so the other weekend I was crossing the street at the top of my block, and I was halfway across the street when this dark-colored luxury SUV took this incredibly aggressive right turn into my path. Like, close enough to basically, like, scrape my—my leg. You know, like, very close, very aggressive. And, you know, that’s actually not that unusual. But what really got me in this case was the driver was kind of looking me right in the eye as she was doing it. You know, we were, like, locked eyes. And it just looked like—you know, it was just like a neighborhood mom. It was like a mom from my kid’s school or something, just kind of staring me straight in the eye as she was almost ruthlessly killing me. [laughs]
Doug Gordon: Look, you made eye contact so, you know, that’s what they say you’re supposed to do.
Aaron: I guess. But so I was just infuriated by this. And I just—so for whatever, I was like, I’m not gonna stand for this one. And so I jogged over to the nearest Citi Bike station, which frankly is not that close to this spot. I jumped on a bike, and I sped down the street in the general direction that she’d gone. My plan—if you could call it that—being I was going to chase down this black SUV.
Sarah: Wait. We’re talking about, like, the bike is like a block from where this happened.
Aaron: It was, like, two blocks. Two or three blocks.
Sarah: [laughs] Okay.
Aaron: I was …
Sarah: So I mean, maybe a slightly inflated vision of just how possible this was.
Aaron: She could have gone in at least three different directions from the bottom of my block, so how was I gonna find this person? Like, you know—and what’s—have you ever looked at how many dark-colored luxury SUVs there are on the streets of New York City?
Sarah: As a matter of fact, I did a whole episode about that.
Aaron: It’s like every other car.
Aaron: So …
Doug: That’s a conservative estimate.
Aaron: And let’s say I did manage to catch this SUV. Like, then what? Was I going to tap on her window and engage her in, like, sort of earnest conversation about traffic safety, or flip out and snap a windshield wiper off, or put my body in front of the SUV and not let her move until she got out and, you know, apologized? You know, so this is what I’ve been wanting to talk about for actually a few weeks now. You know, when you’re on foot, when you’re on a bike, jogging, in a wheelchair, whatever, when you’re out on the street and you are without the protection of a car, and you have one of these experiences with a driver, you know, in a big vehicle, when a driver almost kills you, when a driver threatens you, even just, like, honks obnoxiously, you know, and endlessly in your presence, what are you supposed to do? What’s the productive way to handle it? Like, where do you put the rage?
Sarah: This is The War on Cars, the podcast where you can put the rage.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear, and I’m here with my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek.
Doug: Okay, Aaron. I think what everyone wants to know is did you catch the driver? What did you do?
Aaron: [laughs] Shockingly, no, I did not catch—so I—this is a true story. So I ended up on this Citi Bike, and I’m cruising down the street and I’m like, “Okay, she must have taken a right down at the avenue, at the bottom of my block. Like, that’s where most of the cars go. So I’m just gonna go where most of the cars go. And so I just sort of found myself flying down the middle of this avenue, this busy avenue. You know, and of course, it’s just like gridlock traffic, just kind of like looking through the windows of, like, SUV after—”Oh, there’s a dark SUV a block ahead. I’m gonna catch—nope, that’s not her.” And then it’s sort of like I’m biking along and I’m not finding her, and it’s dawning on me that I really like, even if I do catch this person, like, there’s no plan here. There’s no good plan. There’s no what am I gonna do? Yeah, I was just—I was just, like, kind of in this weird, like, road rage, head rage, bike rage.
Doug: Something primal took over your brain.
Sarah: What do you think it was about that particular incident that really got to you so much?
Aaron: I mean, the real answer is probably I was on a diet.
Aaron: And I was just very aggro at that time. Like, because I wasn’t eating as much as I used to.
Sarah: Okay. But, like, let’s just—let’s just—for those of our listeners who don’t know Aaron, this is not the first time that Aaron has been moved to pursue a vehicle, or to have a direct confrontation with a driver.
Aaron: That’s right. You got me.
Sarah: It’s actually one of the only times that he hasn’t succeeded in having a direct confrontation with a driver. [laughs]
Aaron: It’s true.
Doug: Blame low blood sugar all you want, Aaron.
Aaron: Yeah. No, you’re right.
Sarah: But I think that maybe what calmed you down was riding a bike.
Aaron: That could be. I, like, burned out the adrenaline on the Citi Bike. No, but seriously, it is this thing that just, like, upsets me on a regular basis, and I think it’s something to do with this kind of weird power dynamic that’s out there on the street. And I feel like it’s not really acknowledged or discussed that much outside of perhaps the War on Cars podcast. But, like, these—you know, they’re these people, and they’re piloting these two-and-a-half-ton machines through the city, and they have enormous power. They just have enormous power. And in theory, the power is supposed to come with responsibility. At least that’s what I was taught in mid-1980’s driver’s education school. But, you know, the reality of our streets is that, like, these drivers can do things with just incredible impunity. Like, no accountability, no penalty and, you know, just a disregard for the people who are uncar-ed, you know, vulnerable outside of the car. And for whatever reason, I am one of these people—I believe you two might also be—who just gets very upset about that.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s frightening is part of it. It really is genuinely scary because you do know what the consequences are. And I believe that at that very corner, not that long before this happened to you, there was …
Aaron: Right! So just a few months before this incident, at this very same intersection, there was a woman, like a child caregiver pushing a stroller across the same street. And she was run over and hit by a big pickup truck that was making the exact same kind of, like, super aggressive, careless right turn that, you know, almost hit me in this moment.
Doug: And it should be noted that she pushed the stroller out of the way. The kid would have been killed had she not acted like that. And she paid the price.
Aaron: Totally. It was like this heroic act. And there was even, like, a memorial had just been put in at the corner. It might have even been a few days before this, but that was very much at the top of my mind, and part of the reason I felt so outraged in this moment. But, you know, this stuff happens a lot, and it feels like this big quandary: what is the right way to handle these kinds of incidents? Because I do feel like it would be really good for drivers to receive some kind of feedback that hey, your behavior there? Like, you almost running someone over on the street? That’s not socially acceptable. But, like, the drivers are so cocooned, you know, just sitting in this, like, luxury living room, moving through public space, that they never receive any feedback that says, like, “Hey, you need to stop that. You can’t do that.” And I often just want to give them that feedback. And there’s—and I think a lot about how to do that, and there’s not very good ways.
Doug: Well, the question, I think, is is it even worth it, right? That’s really the big question because it’s such a fraught—I mean, you and I are both straight, white cis-gendered men. And so our calculation is gonna be a lot different from a lot of other people in this world. And so that, I think, really is the quandary. Like, is it even worth it? Like, what’s the goal, right? I agree that they do need more feedback, but I wonder if it can be handled at the individual level.
Aaron: Exactly. Like, if I had gotten in a confrontation with that woman and it had been caught on camera, it wouldn’t have looked like, oh, this poor guy is being picked on by a 6,000-pound SUV. It would have been—looked like, oh, this gigantic, scary, angry 6-foot-2 guy is picking on this poor lady.
Aaron: You know? Like, it’s just a no—that’s a no-win. That’s not a good look. I don’t know, do you guys have these stories of—I don’t know. I mean, this must happen to you all the time.
Doug: It happens all the time. I mean, I actually don’t really confront drivers anymore, but not too long ago, I did. I was walking home, not far from where this happened to you, and I was in the crosswalk and a driver made a left turn and almost hit me. I had the signal. I had the walk signal, and he came right into the crosswalk. And I had a folded up umbrella, so it was pretty short, you know, only about a foot long. And he was so close to me that I, without extending my arm, whacked the top of his hood.
Doug: He screeches to a halt and I start yelling at him. His window is rolled down. “What did you hit my car for?” I said, “You almost hit me.” I’m swearing at him, probably, if I remember correctly. “I have the light,” you know, motioning. It’s still at this point, like, just starting to blink. And he’s screaming at me. And I was just, like, “Fuck you. Get out of here.” And I keep walking home. I’m only a block or two from home. I get to the front door of my apartment and I see his car. It’s a minivan with TLC— that’s, like, taxi plates, basically. So he has followed me home.
Doug: And he still, with his window open, is yelling, “I know where you live! You hit my car! I’m gonna come get you!” And so I pull out my phone, hold it up. And I didn’t want to call the police. You never really want to escalate these things. And I said, “Look, man. You’ve now given me kind of no choice,” because I’m thinking to myself, if I don’t call the police and this guy does do something, I’m fucked, right? So I dial 911, tell them what happened. And I just parked myself there, and he pulls over and he sits in the car and he’s still screaming at me. The cops show up. They talk to him, they talk to me. I tell them what happened. They go back, they talk to him. They come over to me and they say, “Look, we understand that you’re very upset. We understand what happened, but you can’t go about hitting other people’s cars.”
Aaron: Oh, my God!
Doug: Yeah. And I very calmly, because I don’t want to be the one hauled off to jail, I say, “You’ve gotta be kidding me. He was so close to me that I could hit his car, and I’m the one not in one.” And they just didn’t get it. And I was like, “Okay.” Looked at the driver. We both nodded at each other, and that was that. And that was probably the last time I confronted a driver, and might be the last time I confront the driver because it doesn’t seem worth it to me.
Aaron: Right. Because you assaulted his car, and that’s a more serious offense than assaulting your human body.
Doug: Yeah, it was really illustrative of how we see cars as an extension of people’s bodies. So no, I now really feel like it’s not worth it. I’m probably gonna put myself into a worse situation if I do. So yeah, that was my more recent story.
Sarah: Yeah, that’s really scary. And I too—I mean, I’ve lived in New York most of my life, so I can’t say how many hundreds of times I’ve had to make the decision whether to confront a driver or not over the years, and over the years that the atmosphere on the street has, you know, it’s been changing. It’s not the same as it was in the ’80s, where you could confront people much more. I feel like it was much more confrontational then. Or it was—maybe I was just younger, but I felt more empowered to confront people because I don’t know, the stakes didn’t seem as high. Now I feel like the stakes are really, really high. Like, I don’t confront people, and I tell people in my family not to confront people because I’m worried I will get shot.
Sarah: And I worry that it could happen just as fast as you hitting that guy’s car with your umbrella, and that no one would ever really know what had happened and I would be blamed for it somehow. And so I don’t confront that way anymore. A few years ago, I did have an interesting encounter that I think I’ve talked about on the podcast a long time ago where I was riding a bike. I was approaching Atlantic Avenue, I was southbound on Boerum Place, and the bike lane there kind of goes in the middle of the street—it’s a very weird design—so that there can be a right hand turn lane for the cars. And I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I went into the bike lane, and one of—the guy who was trying to get into the right turn lane yells at me, like, “What are you doing in the middle of the street? Stay in the bike lane!” And I was like, okay. You know, I’m not gonna say anything. But then we came up to the light together, and I was in the bike lane and he was right next to me on my right. And I looked over and his window was down and I said, “You see, this is the bike lane. See? I am in the bike lane.” And I said it pretty nicely. And he was like, “Oh, wow. Yeah, I get that. Hey, I’m sorry. I had a really bad fight with my wife this morning.” And I was like, “That’s okay. Don’t worry about it, man. Have a good day. Be safe.” And so, like, to me, that’s sort of like the perfect encounter. Like, the perfect encounter can happen.
Sarah: That is the one time …
Aaron: That’s a good confrontation.
Sarah: … in my dozens of times of confronting. But it did make me think it maybe was a teachable moment for him. Like, maybe he now, if he drives down that street, he gets it that that is where the bike lane is. But that’s not a burden that a woman pushing a stroller, a guy walking across the street, should have to be educating somebody in an 8,000-pound vehicle about what their responsibilities are under the law. It’s not safe, it’s not fair, and we can’t be expected to be teaching people while we’re out there trying to just get around without getting killed.
Doug: I just want to know if that guy went home and made up with his wife. [laughs]
Sarah: I think—I think he did. I feel like their relationship was probably pretty solid.
Doug: I’m kidding but, like, it does show how normalized car violence is, right? That, like, okay, you’re walking down the street and you bump into someone and you snap at them and you realize, “Oh shit, I had an argument with my wife at home. I’m kind of taking it out on this stranger.” But the stakes are really low. What we justify and enable because we’re behind the wheel of a car, you have a bad day and you’re driving, you could kill someone. That’s not an excuse. It’s really amazing that that was his first reaction.
Sarah: Yeah, and I accepted that explanation. I was sort of like, “Yeah, that’s normal. That’s to be expected,” which is not what should be expected.
Aaron: So, you know, we’re pretty sure that we aren’t the only three people in the world who have these kinds of experiences on the street and these feelings and questions about how best to handle confrontations with drivers, so we put the word out on Patreon—and if you’re not a Patreon subscriber to The War on Cars, you should become one so that you can get tipped off early to opportunities to participate in episodes like this one. So we put the word out, and we solicited voicemails to tell us your stories about confrontations on the street. And we got lots of good voicemails. So this first one, I thought it was really good because it kind of sets up the stakes in a very visceral way.
Aaron: This is Aaron from Somerville, Massachusetts. A little while back, I was riding my bike on a pretty narrow road, the kind of road where it was one way and too narrow for a car to safely pass me while biking. And there’s a driver behind me that was trying to go really fast despite the road size and basically started honking and getting upset that I wasn’t pulling off to let him pass, and ended up actually punching on the accelerator and slamming his brakes only inches behind my back wheel, and did this twice before I basically drove off the road onto the sidewalk. And I did actually look and remember the license plate number and tried to file a report for it, but learned that it’s actually not against the law to intimidate someone’s life with your vehicle unless there’s actual damage. So that was quite upsetting to learn.
Aaron: So to me, this almost reads like a mugging. You know, that you’re out there on the street and someone is, like, stalking you and, like, coming up behind you and threatening you. And, like, in this case, not doing the guy harm, but sort of running him off the road. It is almost akin to a mugging, and yet because this is just done with a car to a bicyclist on the street, it somehow is considered like a big nothing.
Sarah: Well, I think it’s more than a big nothing. I mean, first of all, I think the analogy to a mugging is really accurate. And, you know, the person is trying to intimidate you into giving something up, right? Giving up your position on the road, and with the threat of force. But the problem is that in the law and in people’s minds, I think that vehicles are more often seen as the equivalent of homes or castles rather than weapons. And so I think that that’s why Doug got in trouble for doing what he did. He was attacking somebody’s property, he was attacking their home. And there’s plenty of unfortunate cases in which people are using Stand Your Ground as a justification for violence around their cars, that their cars are essentially their castles, right? So that’s the mindset that everybody is in and that’s the structure. And what’s the painful truth is that your body and your body on a bicycle is not viewed by the law as your castle that you can defend against something that is essentially a weapon being wielded in such a way as to explicitly intimidate you and make you fear for your life.
Doug: I was thinking about this in the context of our episode with Ian Walker about motonormativity, because as much as this is like a mugging and muggings happen all the time, there’s also the other side of this which is that that driver probably would never do that to somebody on the sidewalk or in the grocery store or in any other context. Like, “Come on, you’re in front of me at the bank! Get out of the way!” Get up really close to them. They would never do that. But there’s something about being behind the wheel of a car that aggravates this behavior or brings it out in people, and we just accept that. And the law, as Aaron from Somerville says, clearly allows for that to be an acceptable thing.
Sarah: I don’t know, man. I mean, Aaron from Somerville, I’m glad you’re safe because the reality of what happened is that, you know, he could have been badly injured or killed because when somebody is messing with you like that with their car, they can miscalculate. And also, you can get scared enough that you swerve, you fall down, you fall down under their wheels. And then, you know, the cops are gonna say, “Well, the bicyclist hit the vehicle.”
Aaron: Before we get to the next listener voicemail, a quick word from the sponsor of today’s episode, our friends at Rad Power Bikes.
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Aaron: All right, let’s take another voicemail.
Mark: Hey, this is Mark from Berkeley, California. I get into some confrontations sometimes when I’m riding solo, but I tend not to push it anymore. I used to kind of get up in people’s face and say, like, “Hey, you had a stop sign” or whatever. But it just makes me angry at the end of the ride. It just makes me not want to get on my bike and ride as much as I would otherwise. So mostly these days I try to let them go. The exception is when I’m with my kids. I don’t like showing them how angry I get if somebody threatens them, but I also just find it unacceptable if, you know, somebody blows a stop sign in front of two kids riding to school. So I do get more in people’s face that way. The thing I’ve been doing more recently, I have a camera on the top of my helmet, and that seems to really cool people down a lot. They’re not gonna yell back at me if they see that I’m recording. And so that’s my strategy these days.
Aaron: So that’s kind of interesting. Marc has a technological solution: camera.
Doug: Yeah. I have cameras, but I don’t have any on my bike or helmet. I guess I could put them on. You know, whatever works, right? If it cools you down, if it cools other people down, I wish it didn’t have to come to needing these totems, right? Like, these little good luck charms to kind of keep you safe and grounded and keep the other people from going off on you.
Aaron: Right. Like, I don’t really want to film myself getting beaten up by a driver. That’s not my goal.
Doug: I mean, it would be good to have that evidence, I guess, you know? Right? But I think the earlier part of what Mark was saying is that, you know, he sort of like, lets it go when he’s by himself. It’s a little different when he’s with his kids because it feels like a bridge too far. And I’m kind of similar. Like, I was holding my son’s hand and we were about to cross a street, and a driver not even close ran the red light as we stepped off the curb. I yanked my son back, and I really let out a scream of like, “What the fuck?” Like, to the point where another driver was like, “Yeah, holy shit!” And I just think I wouldn’t do that if I were by myself, because there’s just something paternal, you know? Papa Bear sprung into action there.
Doug: So I don’t blame people for those in-the-moment, gut instinct reactions, but I do think yeah, it kind of ruins your day, you know, if you say “Fuck you” to someone. Part of my strategy these days when a driver gets angry but isn’t threatening, if I don’t feel threatened, you know, I’ll just, like, “Have a nice day!” Give him a thumbs up and wave as I pedal off.
Doug: And there’s something actually satisfying in being the smug cyclist who can just beat all the traffic. And that feels like a nice way to turn it around. But yeah, I agree with Mark.
Aaron: Right. Because then it doesn’t, like, stay with you. It doesn’t just get, like, stuck in your head as like …
Doug: Yeah. You know, a lot of this is like human nature, that when you are down and someone else is up, you want to right that, right? To either be on the same level or to get one up on them. And so I understand why people start to scream back when they feel like they’ve been threatened. But for me, I feel like if I can be like, “Huh, you’re stuck in that giant prison box on wheels and I can just keep going,” I’ve won the day. And that’s gonna affect the rest of my day. In the moment, I don’t blame people for getting really upset, but I do think if you can kind of put on a smile and be like, “Hey, have a nice day!” fine.
Sarah: Like I said, I don’t yell almost ever anymore because of all of those reasons, but I have a kind of a sadder feeling about it than that. I mean, yeah, it’s true it doesn’t get my blood pressure up in that moment, and maybe my day is better at the end of the day, but I also feel like I’m subject to these people and these vehicles, and that by being silent and just letting it happen that I am accepting that and I’m accepting, like, essentially a pretty abusive dynamic.
Sarah: And that by my silence, I’m enabling that, too. And so I think there is a cost to it. And I don’t think that we can all just be like, “Oh, just be more zen, man.” Like, you know, it’s not—because there’s a cost to not acting as well. And it’s, I think, a feeling of a loss of agency and realizing, well yes, this is the society I live in. It’s a society with a constant threat of violence and a disregard for human life and a disregard for community. And I’m in some sense enabling that by remaining silent. And so I think that’s another reason that people sometimes can’t remain silent even when they pay that other cost of having their mood ruined. [laughs]
Doug: Oh, I mean, I totally—I totally agree. And I mean, I don’t think what we’re saying are actually at odds with each other because I think for me, what I do is I channel my rage and my energy into the podcast, into the activism that I do. And, you know, I’m lucky in that I’ve chosen different outlets for really getting one up on drivers: putting a bike lane on that street, right? And so that’s not to say that I’m perfect about it, that I don’t react or yell and that I just kind of like, take it across the cheek and say, “Please, sir, may I have another?” But I do think there are ways we—and sort of what we’re getting at in this episode is like, can you channel that rage? Is it productive in the moment to do something? Might be. Might not be. But it’s probably more productive to, if you’re able—and this also involves some amount of privilege—to channel that into organizing and activism and real change on the street.
Doug: Okay. So there’s no question that this episode will have a slightly negative tint, let’s say.
Aaron: [laughs] We’re getting into some existential dread here.
Doug: It’s tough. We’re talking about violence, we’re talking about power dynamics. Sarah mentioned abuse. This is not an easy subject.
Aaron: Well, I have fun ideas. If we’re allowed to confront, I have some fun ideas.
Doug: Well, we do have …
Aaron: Maybe I need to sprinkle them in.
Sarah: [laughs] Okay.
Aaron: Do you want to hear one of my fun ideas?
Doug: Yes, let’s hear it.
Aaron: Okay, so here’s one of my fun ideas for how pedestrians and cyclists can sort of confront drivers: paintball guns.
Doug: I was gonna say, “Are you gonna say silly string?” Because that would have been mine.
Aaron: [laughs] Silly string is better. So look, it can’t be a gun. It cannot be a gun-shaped thing.
Sarah: Good point. [laughs]
Aaron: But a paintball shooter—silly string is actually a great, great idea, Doug. Thank you very much. I had not thought of—I’ve been thinking about this for, like, 20 years.
Doug: Yeah, no gun-shaped objects. That’s a bad idea.
Aaron: But no, the idea would be, like, okay, drivers need to get some feedback that what they’re doing is wrong. And there’s so many more of us, like pedestrians and cyclists, people outside the cars, at least in New York and other big, you know, dense cities. So what we need to start doing is we all start carrying silly string, okay? I’ve moved on to the silly string. And so we carry the silly string, and any time a driver acts like an asshole, you shoot his car with silly string. You know, you make sure you have some kind of, like, escape route or something, but pretty soon there’s certain cars rolling around the neighborhood and they’re just covered in silly string. And you know that it’s just like the scarlet letter. Like, you know that they’re the ones who are being the sociopaths on the street. And they feel shame.
Sarah: I really like that idea. I also—like, for some reason, it made me imagine, like, you know, when you’re on a street, and the traffic is stopped and there’s the guy who’s honking and honking. I was just imagining, like, if all of the pedestrians who were on the street, like, surrounded that car in that moment and just—just unloaded their silly string on him, like, right then.
Aaron: This is what we need. Like, we need some kind of like, mass uprising, you know? There’s just—this is it!
Sarah: But somebody’s gonna find out that silly string damages paint finishes.
Doug: It probably does, yeah.
Sarah: So—and then you’re gonna be arrested.
Aaron: Exactly. I’m sure it’s assault.
Doug: For another joyous way of dealing with jerks behind the wheel, for our block party there are always a couple of drivers who don’t move their cars. And it’s not because they don’t know that the block party is happening or they’re away, they’re just jerks who don’t want to move their cars. So we buy paper streamers, different colors, and have the kids just toss the streamers across the cars. And so it doesn’t damage the car. It might stick if it gets wet, but the driver will then come back and at least have a few minutes of having to unravel and take off all of the streamers from their car to show that …
Aaron: Love that.
Doug: … yeah, you’re an asshole, but the kids had fun showing you that you were an asshole. So yeah, let’s bring more joy into confronting drivers.
Aaron: Okay. Well, keeping in the spirit of this positive vibe, here’s a voicemail from Marcia from Alexandria, Virginia.
Marcia: I have a positive story. We moved to Alexandria, Virginia, 18 months ago, and I was amazed at the bike infrastructure all around town. I think because there is so much awareness of bike shares, bike lanes, bike trails, that the drivers here have been surprisingly considerate. I think the lesson is that if you build the infrastructure, the drivers will know they have to share the road and will adapt.
Doug: I mean, I think that’s it. You know, the design of our streets signifies who belongs, who has power and who deserves to be there, right?
Aaron: It also, like, actually makes conflict less prevalent.
Aaron: I mean …
Doug: I’m over here. You’re over there. We all go in our separate directions. You can’t turn into me. Like Aaron from Somerville, if there was a protected bike lane where the parking probably was on that street, that driver could have passed you safely without—like, who cares what kind of day he was having? He could have just gone on his way.
Sarah: And the last thing she said, “They will adapt.” And I think that’s really key. It’s so often when a change is proposed in infrastructure, you know, everybody freaks out and then it gets implemented, and guess what? Like, people adapt. And I think that’s really important to remember that just the way that people adapted to having cars in their environment, people can adapt to having bikes and prioritizing other road users.
Doug: I mean, I also think that so much of this is herding cats, because let’s say you confront a driver, “Hey, you almost killed me back there,” and they say, “Wow, I didn’t consider that. You know, I’m gonna be a safer driver from here on out.” And they never harm or come within an inch of harming another person again. Great. That might be completely cathartic for you, and you feel really good about it. But we are minting new bad drivers every day, and we are never going to be able to get enough drivers to apologize their way to being good drivers. We need better infrastructure that takes that out of the equation entirely. It’s just the way the street is designed and that’s the end of it.
Aaron: Right. So I guess one of the things we’re getting at here is that this system really doesn’t work for anybody. You know, we’re all sort of victimized by it. And here is Albert from Montreal with a voicemail on this very point.
Albert: I think it’s misguided to confront drivers directly. People who have been sold on a car-centric lifestyle and then invested heavily in that lifestyle and need to navigate substandard infrastructure in distracting and large vehicles without proper training, they are put in an impossible position. They, like us, are victims of car culture. When we get into confrontations with drivers, the status quo wins. Rather, all our energy needs to be put into political action to improve our dysfunctional urban planning.
Sarah: Yeah. I mean, I think that’s just an incredibly wise and compassionate viewpoint, because it takes about five minutes to become a monster when you get behind the wheel of a car.
Doug: That’s a long time. It takes me 30 seconds.
Sarah: [laughs] But yeah, and when you’re driving, you constantly have to make these life and death calculations. It’s incredibly stressful. This is not what human beings were built to do.
Doug: I mean, I also think there’s a point that he’s making here, which is that in the news and online, we tend to focus on the very egregious, almost evil drivers, right? The person who willingly drove drunk and plows into a group of people, the person who continued driving after they had a suspended license for a driving-related offense. But, like, the story you told at the top, that woman is probably—like she’s on her PTA, you know, she volunteers in the neighborhood. She probably has a pretty clean driving record overall, even though she might occasionally almost kill large people in her neighborhood.
Aaron: She certainly doesn’t perceive herself as, like, some kind of criminal or scofflaw.
Doug: No. And nobody does, right? Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna almost kill as many people as I can, and if I’m lucky, I’ll kill one of them.” Nobody does that. I do think that the more we focus on these conflicts, the more we focus on, well, you’re a bad driver. And like I said before, we can educate this one driver to being a good driver, but we can’t really change the system through that.
Aaron: I mean, there’s no question that you guys are articulating the mature and I would say even correct response, but there is still something unsatisfactory about this, like, “Oh, well. I guess I can’t do anything about it, and just have to, like, go join my local advocacy group.” Which frankly is what I did, too.
Doug: It’s hard as hell, right? It’s hard as hell. I mean, I still want to—like, I have this rage and I want it to go somewhere.
Aaron: Okay, well, and sometimes as this voicemail points out, it does feel good and maybe even just to kind of have it out with a driver.
Michelle: Hi, War on Cars. This is Michelle from Portland, Oregon, and I’m calling to share my driver interaction story. So important context is that my one-year-old son was killed by a driver who was turning right through a crosswalk in 2010. So about 10 years after my son was killed, I was jogging on a quiet street in my neighborhood when a woman who was making a right turn almost hit me in a crosswalk, and I gave her a dirty look, which is about as aggressive as I ever get in those situations, and I just kept running. But she must have gone around the block because a few minutes later she pulled up next to me, slowed down and rolled down her window. She said, “You know, you should wear a vest or lights or something.” This was around 7:00 a.m. on a summer morning, so it was broad daylight, and something inside me just snapped. I ripped my earbuds out of my ears, I stomped over to her car and I said, “My one-year-old son was killed by a driver in a crosswalk. Lights would not have saved him. I’m not gonna wear a fucking vest. You need to be careful.” And she kind of just sat there. She didn’t say anything, and I just kept running. It really felt good to be able to yell at someone in a way that I had rehearsed in my head for so long. And I hope that it made her think. I guess I’ll never know.
Sarah: Thank you, Michelle. I’m so sorry. I can’t even imagine how present that rage must be at every moment of the day, and you definitely deserved to unleash it on that woman.
Doug: Yeah. Thank you so much for sharing that. And I think sort of like what we’re getting at, this is complicated. It’s really easy for us to sit here. We’ve been talking about this episode for a really long time, and think rather academically about what we might do. But in the moment and your own personal circumstances and history, all of that goes out the window and you just react. And nothing can necessarily prepare you for what you might do or say. So yeah, thank you so much for sharing, Michelle.
Aaron: But I do appreciate that. Michelle actually—it sounds like she did kind of prepare. Like, she had that sort of ready to go.
Doug: And it sounds like she got to the driver, actually. Like, there wasn’t a reaction back.
Sarah: Yeah. And incredible that the woman actually sort of hunted her down to say her own scolding thing, which was completely irrelevant and unhelpful.
Sarah: In the situation.
Doug: It’s a point I think I have made many times on the podcast, which is that drivers are always in the biggest rush until you tell them to slow down. Then they stop their car, they even sometimes get out of their car. They circle the block, you know, and chase after you as the driver did to me and it sounds like has happened in this situation. Like, wow, suddenly someone’s got a lot of time, don’t they? So I guess maybe you could have driven more carefully, saved yourself all of this aggravation.
Aaron: So this voicemail’s from Matt from Houston. It really hits on this idea of how identity can really have a big impact on these confrontations on the street.
Matt: This is Matt, and I’m from Houston. Living as a gay person in this country, people would really be shocked by how often we’re called the F slur, queer and even names that can be far worse than that from people who are piloting vehicles on the road. It happens so often that many of us have been conditioned to dismiss it almost without a thought when it’s brief and in passing. But when a driver slows down or even stops his vehicle, especially in a gun-crazy state like Texas, where I currently live, or Florida where I went to college, it can feel like a really serious threat to your safety or even your life. One time at a crosswalk in Miami when I was in college, a right-turning driver was forced to slow down and let me cross. And he got so angry that not only did he lean out his window with the F slur, he actually grabbed a handful of loose change from inside his truck and he flung it in my direction before he sped down South Dixie Highway.
Aaron: There’s a lot going on in there, including the flinging of money.
Sarah: Yeah, it’s an insult and it’s a belittling. And this is the dynamic that so many drivers cling to so hard is their superiority to other people who are outside the vehicle. And if that person has an identity that is discernible as a marginalized identity, then all the more reason for them to assert their superiority. It can be really scary. I mean, women feel this a lot.
Doug: You know, I sometimes say that cars are like the internet comments section of the world, that we say and do things we might never do because of the anonymity that that affords us, and anonymity equals power in many cases. That’s not to say that this person behind the wheel of a car who went so far as to, like, hurl a roll of quarters at somebody isn’t a giant homophobe in every other aspect of their life, but it is interesting how that power dynamic plays out along these gendered and identity levels. And sometimes racial slurs as well. I’ve heard that levied at people of color and, like, “Really? You would say that if you weren’t in a car? I don’t know.”
Aaron: So we would be remiss if we finished this episode without a specific voicemail about guns. Matt’s voicemail touches on it, but here is another.
Tim: Hi, War on Cars friends. My name is Tim and I live in Phoenix, Arizona. And there’s lots of bad drivers and lots of bad bike lane blockers here in Phoenix, but everyone here carries guns, so I don’t risk confrontation. I usually just make my way past them as quick as possible, and the fun part about being on a bike is you’re—you’re away from them just as soon as you were encountering them. So they deserve to be confronted, but like I said, Phoenix-area citizens and drivers are psychopaths with guns, so I just kind of keep rolling.
Sarah: Oh, man! Keep rolling, Tim. [laughs] Roll on.
Doug: Yeah, the tough part about riding a bicycle is you don’t have a place to hide your gun. So yeah, you can’t fight back. That’s scary though.
Sarah: You don’t need to hide it in Arizona. [laughs]
Doug: No, that’s true. Yeah. Yeah.
Sarah: No, but I mean, like, I said this earlier, yes, there are guns out there. There are a lot of guns even here in New York where there are fewer guns than there are elsewhere. And I just feel like the threat of violence is very big in the United States especially. It’s just very, very loud, and it’s gotten much louder in the last 10 years. And I think it’s really wise. I mean, certainly what I’ve told my 21-year-old son at this point, you know, like, don’t start anything with somebody because you could get shot in a second.
Doug: Yeah. Over the stupidest stuff.
Doug: And that really is a factor. And also, as many people have mentioned, the car itself becomes a weapon at a certain point, and it’s not always easy to discern when that moment happens. And so yeah, that’s a real factor that you have to consider.
Aaron: Okay. So keeping perspective is important. Here’s another voicemail on that.
Luc: My name is Luc, and I live in Bordeaux, France, and I cycle pretty much every day. It’s my main mode of transportation. I used to get very angry at drivers. I used to yell and shout and got close to getting to a fistfight a few times. Made me feel real bad. What I did then was join a local cycling advocacy group, and that will help to soothe my nerves and helps me to put things into perspective, and it helps me to know that I’m helping my city develop better options for cyclists and pedestrians and everyone else.
Doug: I mean, I endorse this strategy.
Aaron: What can you say?
Doug: I endorse this strategy. Look, like I keep saying: it’s complicated.
Doug: And what you need to do in the moment, how you react when that sort of reptilian part of your brain takes over, nobody can tell you what’s right or wrong. You just have to do what you need to do to feel safe. But yes, if you can channel your energy even into just an email to your local city council official or DoT staff member and say, “This street really needs a protected bike lane.” It’s hard because it’s not immediate gratification that you get from yelling at someone, but if you can do that, that goes a long way.
Aaron: Okay, so here’s our last voicemail. This is James from Portland, Oregon, and he seems to have found a solution that really lets you get out your rage and also solves the problem. Like, this is it. This is what you do.
James: Hi, this is James from Portland, Oregon. This story’s about a fellow that passed me in one of our greenways here—used to be called bikeways—yelling obscenities at me and things. And of course, you know, pull up to the stoplight that he’s gonna be at and he’s in the green box, so I pull up next to him and he’s still kind of bent out of shape. So I just mentioned to him, “You look very miserable and upset.” And he says, “Damn right I am.” And I said, “Welcome to the war on cars.”
Aaron: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks so much for listening. If you want to be tipped off to opportunities to participate in episodes like this one the subscribe to The War on Cars via Patreon. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and enlist today. Starting at just $3 per month, you’ll get access to exclusive bonus content, ad-free episodes. We will send you stickers, and you’ll be the first to know when we’re seeking listener contributions like we did for this episode.
Sarah: Special thanks to our friends at Rad Power Bikes for sponsoring this episode, and thanks so much to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon. The law Office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, Martin Mignon and Mark Hedlund.
Doug: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. I’m Doug Gordon.
Sarah: I’m Sarah Goodyear.
Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek and this is The War on Cars.