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Cycling and the Law: What to do when things go south

The better alternative to pounding a hood in anger

We’ve all been there—adrenalin coursing through your veins, pumping with righteous indignation. A motorist just turned right across your path forcing you to slam on the brakes to avoid a certain collision. Or, you feel a blast of wind as you get close passed by a vehicle going 95 km/h on a country road. The incidents, the close calls—they’re seemingly endless.

Instinctively, anger sets in. You flip them the bird or pound on a car window. Personally, in years past, I have chased motorists on my bike in a pointless attempt to demonstrate their impropriety. I have caught back up to cars in traffic and laid solid thumps on their hoods for nearly injuring me. But, as a lawyer for many cyclists in road-rage incidents, I have curbed my reaction to even the most shocking displays of disregard for my safety by motorists.

What many cyclists, including me, have learned is that responding to dangerous driving with swearing or physical responses can escalate these situations. Violence can beget violence. That aggression may even resurface later as the motorist holds on to a hostility toward cyclists.

Our client, Frank, was cycling and got into an altercation with a cab driver who was parked in a busy bike lane at rush hour. Frank then had to merge unsafely with impatient motorists. As he passed the cab, he hit its door with his foot. Then some words were exchanged. Soon, the cabby pulled up alongside Frank. The motorist weaponized his vehicle and ran over our client. Miraculously, Frank escaped serious physical injury, but the trauma from the event has lingered on for years.

Sadly, I could go on. We represent at least a dozen cyclist victims in road-rage cases where a dispute over safe driving escalated quickly to physical violence—serious injuries, videos of the incidents, police charges. Even with all of these factors in play, these cases take time. Insurance companies are loath to pay out for road rage it seems.

While these incidents happen frequently, they are incredibly hard to predict. You simply do not know who is behind the wheel of that vehicle that just close passed you, what kind of a day they are having or if they are predisposed to violence. In Frank’s case, that cab driver had a history of legal battles, including an assault. Since you can’t predict the outcomes or can’t possibly know who you are dealing with, the safest bet is to avoid the motorist completely or de-escalate.

When I say “de-escalate,” I’m not suggesting that you ignore transgressions by motorists. Not at all. Authorities failing to address dangerous driving is what is already leading to a culture of impunity on our roads. I’m suggesting that rather than going it alone in the fight to keep us all safe, you take steps to address safety issues without putting yourself or other cyclists at risk.

How do you de-escalate? First, cool down. Get off the road or take a turn down a side street. Did another rider see the incident? Start chatting and commiserating. These actions will help you ground and calm yourself. You will also be able to reflect and decide if you should report the motorist.

One of my de-escalating tools is to say the vehicle’s licence plate over and over in my mind until I can text it to myself. Then, I report the really dangerous drivers. This step not only creates an incident report related to the individual driver, but also adds to the data that represents negative interactions between road users. The data can be used by local advocacy groups to encourage municipal leaders to make infrastructure changes to decrease conflict points between road users and create sep-arated infrastructure that truly keeps riders like us safe.

Now, I get it—that triggered response to lash out at a motorist on their cellphone after they’ve drifted into the bike lane. Just remember that in a debate with two tons of motorized steel, you’re always at a disadvantage. We ride bikes because we want to be healthy, save the environment, decrease our commute time, have adventures and have fun. Cycling is an elevated state of being. Never let them bring you down. Ride on.

Dave Shellnutt is the founder and managing partner of The Biking Lawyer LLP, lawyers for injured cyclists, thebikinglawyer.ca.