Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Unsolicited advice: Five top tips for getting along with drivers

You’re slower than cars and harder to see. Sometimes you tie up an entire lane even though physically you occupy only a fraction of it. You are going to get in the way of drivers. Here are a few suggestions on how to keep from annoying them at the same time.

The best general advice is, ironically, simply to conduct yourself like a good driver. Try, within your ability, to become part of and remain within the flow of traffic. So, first – you already know this, but it can’t be omitted – ride predictably. Unpredictable riders agitate drivers. (Not to mention that they are more likely to get hit.) In Washington’s miserable commuter traffic, drivers are already burdened with enough anxiety and frustration. Don’t add to it.

Second. Ride confidently and purposefully. A fearful rider is an unpredictable rider, which is bad. (See above.) You have the right to be on the road; ride as though you believe it. And ride purposefully; don’t dither. Nobody likes ditherers.

Third. You are entitled to make drivers to wait for a bit behind you, to slow to let you into space, or to change lanes to pass you – that’s what “sharing the road” means. But never do anything to force a driver into an abrupt change of speed or direction. It’s discourteous and dangerous. When I drove a taxi, I devised a rule for good hacking: Never give your passengers, or other drivers, reason to reflect upon Newton’s Laws of Motion. You haven’t got passengers but the rule’s good for you too.

In addition to doing your best to become part of the flow, be polite. Really polite. Here you have an advantage. The humans beings piloting cars and trucks vanish within their large and impersonal machines. But you on your bike are visibly, perceptibly, a person. Remind drivers of this, in thoughtful and considerate ways, and you’ll defuse a lot of potential resentment. So:

Fourth. When someone gives you a break, acknowledge it. A wave, a nod – something they’ll see. Maybe they gave you a bit of room at a light so you could ease past them on the curb side. Or slowed to let you into their lane so you could ride around a parked car. Or waved you through at a stop sign. Whatever – say thanks and make sure they see it.

Fifth and finally. When you screw up, apologize. Yeah, it’s hard, but suck it up. Be a mensch. Once or twice I’ve actually turned around and chased down a driver whom I’d wronged. In both instances they greeted me ready to continue the fight, but upon hearing me admit that I’d been wrong, quickly calmed down, allowed that everyone makes mistakes, told me to be the hell more careful and wished me well.

This last bit of advice is, I think, pretty idiosyncratic (I’ve never seen anyone else recommend it) and I suppose that it needs to be applied judiciously (a soft answer doesn’t invariably turn away wrath) but apologies are powerful things and I’m willing to bet that both of those drivers went home and told their wives or girlfriends about the remarkable encounter they’d had that day with a bicyclist. It’s a neat trick to use a mistake to make a good impression, and uncommonly satisfying.

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