Neil Davis: Road Rage

Ukiah Valley Trail Group

Are there any documented cases of bicycle or pedestrian road rage? I’ve not heard of them. Apparently there’s something about cars that triggers the phenomenon.

When I was in college I took a research methods class and came across a series of studies investigating the “frustration – aggression hypothesis”. As a bicyclist, it tickled my funny bone when I read of researchers negotiating their cars to the front of the line at a red light – when the light turned green they would just sit there and count the seconds until people started to honk. “Wow” I thought, “this sounds like enough fun to make it my career.” I proposed a study that would compare how frustrated we could make drivers by making them wait for bikes, baby strollers, etc. and perhaps compare those responses with something that the drivers would consider a reasonable delay. There were two problems; 1) I couldn’t think of any delay a driver would consider reasonable, and 2) my professor refused out of hand to consider what he apparently considered an insanely dangerous research study. “Fine,” I concluded, “I’ll switch majors”. My career as a research psychologist was over before it started, how frustrating.

The frustration- aggression hypothesis -which like most psychological theories is not accepted by everyone who cares, and no one who doesn’t – is that aggression is a by product of frustration. So if that’s the case, our road raging drivers must have somehow, somewhere – become frustrated.

I started thinking about this when I read some comment about the importance of “play’ in our adult lives. I realized that there is a playful element to riding a bike, even when you’re riding for transportation. Something about gliding along under your own power, the breeze flowing over you, the ability to control your direction with a minor shift in your center of gravity – it all somehow is simply fun. Even within the constraints of our traffic laws, pretty much whatever you can make the bike do, you’re free to do.

And I had an epiphany – driving a car is an inherently frustrating experience. If you buy in to the sales pitch of the car, you can go zero to sixty in a heart beat, fly around corners like a NASCAR pro, four wheel through wild and scenic rivers and of course at the same time it will make you oh so very sexually appealing. So you plunk down your thirty plus grand and bring your new toy home only to discover that none of the sales pitch is true. You find out you have to always keep your vehicle pretty well reined in. You can’t sway to and fro in those little narrow lanes, you can’t floor it from the stop sign, you can’t cut corners or zip through parking lots. For crying out loud, you have to be alert and careful at all times because if you hit someone you could kill them! For anyone who drives in an even remotely responsible manner, you never, ever, come close to pushing the vehicle to its limits. The speedometer just sits there and mocks you with its “120 mph” as you poke along at 30 mph. “Darn it, another school zone”!

Not so on a bike my friend! Want to gun it out of the intersection? Go for it, give it all you got! Coasting down the hill with no one behind you? Take the whole lane, slalom gracefully from side to side and remember the joy, freedom, and exhilaration of your first bike, your first chance to travel at will out of shouting range of Mom. Yes, it still feels great! No wonder those drivers are so frustrated.

Now of course, many have driven, but few have raged. I’ve probably driven cars more hours than I’ve ridden bikes. I’ve been, at times, frustrated with the car experience, which may at times have led to minor aggression (well, at least passive-aggression; “all right, if you’re going to tail gate me, I’ll drive even slower!”). Yet I’ve never experienced road rage and you probably haven’t either. Road rage lives at the far end of the dissatisfaction with driving spectrum. I suppose on the other end of the spectrum is some kind of “one with the car” joy but I know I’ve never even talked to anyone who has described that particular bliss. For most of us, our driving experience is probably mostly “blah” with occasional interludes of dissatisfaction, frustration and anger.

Ask a habitual walker when they last found walking to be dissatisfying, frustrating or anger inducing. Ask a bicyclist the same question. It’s unlikely you will hear anything except that they enjoy it and possibly a variation on a theme of “sometimes the cars scare me”.

So if you’re walking or riding your bike, try to be patient with those car drivers, they’re not having any fun. And if you’re driving, ask yourself. “Am I really going so far that I can’t walk or ride my bike and have a little fun”?
For more information on how to leave your car at home and walk or bike short trips, go to Mendo 2 Mile Challenge or visit the face book community Walk & Bike Mendocino.



Bike road rage?

Extremely rare but not absent. I always try to remember to never say never or always. One day I was trying teaching my 16 yo to drive in downtown San Francisco (I agree that was wrong) when, as the result of not aggressively moving into the turning lane, a bike messenger kicked in the drivers door of our Geo. That episode still haunts her. As long as that car lasted the large dent in the door reminded me that virtue is not entirely a function of one’s ecological commitment. An aggressive, violent human environment, like traffic in San Francisco, will bring out the worst in anyone regardless commitment to peaceful progress.


jonathan middlebrook September 13, 2010 at 8:37 am

Bicycle rage?–The other warm and moonless night I was waiting at a 4-way stop. Out of the dark and into my headlights came a young woman, about the age of my younger daughter. She was clothed in fashionable black, and neither she nor her bike had any lights. As, without stopping, she turned in front of me, I called to her, “Sweetheart, please get some lights.” — She birded me.

Anonymity appears to be at it’s root…

..whether it’s cars or black hawk helicopters.

All true. I’m not sure I’m going to grant “flipping the bird” road rage status. From beginning to end, rude behavior, absolutely. Kicking in a door on the other hand – on my arbitrary scale, I’ll give that one road rage status. Of course with bike messenger culture being what it is, he may have been “counting coup” and is probably still bragging about it.