[Ken Kifer's Bike Pages]
ARTICLE: Using Assertiveness in Traffic Disputes
A cyclist who quit riding on the road because of a traffic incident gets some pointers on how to behave with police and motorists.

Does the law require the cyclist ride ride on the shoulder and/or on broken glass? Does the law require a cyclist to have a driver's license? What should a bicyclist not do in a traffic dispute? How should he behave instead? How does taking a firm stand improve your position against that of the motorist? How can being assertive win over the police officer? How did I deal with aggressive motorists and a policeman who thought I was wrong? How can we sometimes use a trick to gain respect? Why is being calm valuable? What will cause police to believe that you are guilty? What false opinion can a police officer form of a cyclist? Why should you not be excessively polite, friendly, and agreeable? Why should you try to restrain your emotions? How can you safely show that you are angry? How have police been helpful to me? How does being polite and assertive help with motorists who are not polite nor assertive? What happened to me when I displayed anger towards some boys out looking for trouble? What are two excellent books that teach assertive rather than aggressive or passive behavior?


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Using Assertiveness in Traffic Disputes

A cyclist wrote: I was riding once into Princeton, NJ, on a wide two lane road with a really crappy shoulder -- glass, broken gravel, road litter.  I was out into the road a little to avoid all the evil tire eating stuff but not out far enough to impede a car in any way.  Soon it came to pass that a car pulled up behind me on a stretch of the road where there was a broken yellow line, and about a half mile visibility ahead -- ya know, as in pass me with no problem.  But nooooo, the SOB simply leaned on his horn, and leaned and leaned and actually leaned out the window and yelled at me to move over (into the glass and tire eating trash).  I waved him around but nooo, he was having none if it and leaned on his horn s'more.  Well, I broke down and gave him the fickle finger of fate, which evidently irritated him to such an extent that he brushed past me, and I swear he picked some hair off my ankle.  Thinking the incident was over, I rode on into town and there on the side of the road was the evil doer talking with a cop.  As I rode by them, I heard the #@$%! exclaim "there he is officer!"  Whereupon, the cop jumped in his 4000 pound conveyance and came after me with lights flashing and gumball machine in full light show.  He pulled in front of me and essentially pulled me over like I was in a car, whereupon he proceeded to tell me that I had broken some statute or other  -- something about "inciting to harass," and he was going to impound my bike and "take me in."  I remained calm thinking this had to be a joke (it sure was to me!!) but the policeperson was serious.  He asked me for my drivers license.  I didn't happen to have it on me (I was after all riding my bike),  which got him really angry, saying that was another law I'd broken.  Gees, this was getting rediculouser and rediculouser.  Well I gave him my name and address -- both fictitious -- and he said I could expect a summons in the mail.  I never rode in Princeton again -- moved to North Carolina, in fact.

This is a very good story. You made some mistakes, so it can be a lesson to newbies, but at the same time, you were the innocent party and did not deserve such treatment.

First, the law does not require you to ride on the shoulder, and I always avoid broken glass and other hazards.  Second, the motorist had a clear lane, so he had absolutely no reason to harass you.  Third, he nearly hit you with his car which is reckless endangerment.  Fourth, you had no legal obligation to have a driver's license.  So, in all these things, you were clearly in the right, as you well know.

However, you gave the fellow the finger and you were defensive with the policeman, which hurt your case.  I'm not being judgmental here, I wasn't there, and I might have lost my cool also.  You should have headed towards the policeman the minute you saw him.  Your attitude towards him should have been friendly, positive, and assertive, and you should have said, "Officer, I'm so glad you're here.  This man is guilty of reckless endangerment."  Then go ahead and tell exactly what happened without exaggeration and without being in the least defensive.  At the very least, you will show the motorist that you don't back down easily and that you're not afraid of him.  The motorist is not going to want to have to visit court to testify, and you can make sure that there is a question about his part in the affair.  In addition, you will be showing the officer a different view of what happened.  If you are objective, logical, and unbiased, the officer is likely to believe you over a hot-headed motorist who just finished telling a wild story.  But even if he doesn't believe you, he will recognize that your conflict is one person's word against another's.

I was in a situation with many of the same features back in 1965, when no one in Alabama except me seemed to know I had a right to use the road.  I was traveling down the highway, which had two ten-foot wide lanes back then (right now the same road is 60 feet wide and is much less safe for cycling when it has the same amount of traffic), at about 25 mph on my 3-speed (I had a good tail wind).  A car came up behind me and had to wait while some cars passed me going the other way.  The driver pulled up alongside me after they passed and began to lecture me on how to ride a bicycle.  Several cars passed while he was talking.  I noticed that he had one of those flashing lights -- the kind you can place on the car roof in an emergency -- on his dash, so I figured he must be police or, more likely, volunteer rescue or something.  I tried to explain, but he got mad and moved towards me, pushing me off the road and onto loose gravel.  I barely avoided a nasty spill.  I got back on the bike and proceeded to town where a police car was waiting for me.  I never gave the officer a chance to open his mouth. "Officer," I said, "I was run off the road back there by a man who then came into town.  Do you know anything about it?"  He told me the man had complained that I had been blocking the road.  I then asked him, "Do you know the name of the man?  I want to press charges against him!"  I told him exactly what happened, and I said I had done nothing illegal or unreasonable while that fellow had deliberately run me off the road into deep gravel where I could have been severely injured.  I asked him again to identify the man, and said, "I'm sure you know who he was, as he had some kind of emergency light on his dash."  The officer left without any mention of my driver's license or without any criticism of my behavior.  Of course, he might have been a lot more reasonable than your officer was.  Some people, you just can't talk to.  You might have gotten two bad ones in a row.  But being assertive will give you a better chance than trying to ignore the situation.

During the same period of time while I was riding on another highway, a tractor-trailer came up behind me at the same time as a car was approaching from the other direction, causing the driver of the rig to slow down pretty abruptly.  As soon as the car had passed, he passed me and then slammed on his brakes, leaving huge skid marks up the road.  He jumped out of the cab, and I stopped to talk to him.  He loudly accused me of causing him to nearly wreck, pointed to his skid marks as proof, and asked me how much I thought loosing that much rubber cost him.   I treated him with respect, but I did not yield an inch.  I pointed out that I had a legal right to use the road, that he had had time to slow down without endangering anyone, and that he skidded his tires only after passing me.  I was not sure what his reaction would be, but he ended up agreeing with me, to my relief.  While being assertive did not cause him to agree with me, any other behavior would have prevented him from doing so.

By the way, I have a funny story about showing my license that shows another side of assertiveness.  This happened about ten years later in the same town.  I was renting a low-cost house in the Mill Village (factory workers' homes).  I was coming back from seeing friends late at night and the street was pitch black.  Suddenly, a park car's lights blinded me.  I was forced to dismount and walk toward my house.  Then the car approached with two policemen in it.  "What are you doing out after curfew?" they demanded.  "I don't know anything about a curfew; I'm on my way back home," I said.  They said, "Don't you know this whole area is under curfew; no one is allowed to be out at night!"  I said, "That's ridiculous; I live in America; I have the right to go wherever and whenever I please."  "Show us some identification!" they demanded.  I had to think fast.  I did not want to go to jail over some stupid law.  They hadn't asked for my driver's license because of a new law about such requests and because I hadn't been driving a car.  I had been teaching at the local university part-time, so I gave them my faculty identification card! Their offensive behavior suddenly became very polite, "Excuse us for bothering you, Sir!  We won't do it again, Sir!"  Of course, I was lucky that time.  By the way, before leaving, they acknowledged that the only reason they stopped me was that I was on a bicycle -- if I had been in car, they would have left me alone.

Being assertive can help even with a real jerk.  I was stopped at a red light, unfortunately, too near the edge of the road (the light caught me by surprise).  A car pulled up alongside me, meaning I would have to let him go first.  A passenger in the back seat pushed the upper part of his body out of the window, grabbed me by the neck, and almost lifted me off of the bicycle.  His neck was thick, his bare chest and arms were heavy with muscles, and his breath was reeking from alcohol.  I could hardly speak, but I remained very calm.  I said in a horse whisper, "I wouldn't do that if I were you."  "Why not?" he asked.  "You never know," I said very calmly, "I'm old enough that I could have been in Vietnam."  He carefully lowered me back onto my seat, slid back into the vehicle, and they drove off.  I never have seen him again.  Notice that I made no threat, and I told no lie.  I was actually giving him very good advice which I hope he will remember.  Some little guys can be very dangerous.   (I'm not one of them, and I wasn't in Vietnam).

As gamblers know, putting a good face on things is better than four aces.  It also doesn't hurt if you keep your wits and can pull a joker out of your sleeve as well.  But, most important to your defense is to keep control of your emotions, both fear and anger.  Police will assume that you are guilty if you act defensive in any way.  One co-worker was at a store when it was being robbed, so he ran away, and the police shot and killed him.  At another time, I accepted a short ride to a store for a soft drink with a fellow who used drugs.  We had just pulled in when a dozen police arrived, aiming their guns with both hands.  The people leaving the store threw themselves on the ground, groceries and all.  My "friend" was wild-eyed.  "What do we do!" he cried.  "You sit there cool as a cucumber and still as a statue; don't say a word or do a thing," I answered.  So, we watched the police get their man from ringside seats while the police ignored our van.  Of course, I vowed to never again risk riding in the vehicle of a drug user.  The police tend to judge people by first impressions.  As an extreme example, one dark night, I was arriving at school to teach a class when I rode through a police cordon.  One of the officers called out to me, "Kid, you better get out of here on that bike; there's a convict hiding around here."   He had dismissed the idea of my being the convict simply because of my method of travel and had evidently reduced my age by 30 years.

Be sure to be polite, without being excessively polite, and friendly, without trying to be a pal.  I do not call the police "sir," but I do call them "officer."  I treat them with respect, but as public servants, not as authorities over me.  I am cooperative without being submissive.  Never show fear, distaste, or any unpleasant emotion.  Be careful of venting unattached emotions, the officer might think a #@$%! refers to him.  If you are angry, it's OK to say that you are angry, but its very bad to sound angry.  Restraining your emotions gathers respect and avoids creating anger.  When the police have stopped me, I have always begun by asking, "What was I doing wrong?"  If I disagreed, I did so through another question, "What was wrong with that?" or "What should I have done differently?"  It's easy to disagree without arguing and in a way that furnishes more information.  I am fortunate, however, in having only one police officer harass me on a bicycle trip (1966, Keokuk).  He accused me of stealing corn from the fields and a lot of other malarkey and built up to the threat of "taking me in," but I think he was surprised to find that that's exactly what I wanted him to do.  When I began to insist that he take me to the police station, he decided that it was time to leave.  Most of the police who have stopped me just wanted to be friendly, and I'm always pleased to have an opportunity to chat about my trip.  The police have also been good about helping me find a place to camp for the night.

Treat motorists just a politely as you treat the police, even if they don't deserve it.  I was traveling down the road on my bike when a car drove by and the people in the car yelled threats at me.  Normally, such cars disappear into the distance, but this time the driver pulled in at a house up ahead.  I pulled in also, not because I wanted to, but because riding past would have been telling them that it was OK for them to harass me in the future.  They waited for me to react, and I looked them right in their faces and explained that the law gave me the same right to travel on the road as it gave them and that harassing me on the road was against the law.  Then I thanked them for listening to me and left.  They never bothered me again.  I use the same method with people whose dogs have been harassing me.  I have also been guilty on one occasion of reacting in the wrong way, and I saw the results of that.  In the early 70's, a car came by with the occupants swerving and yelling at me, and I gave them the finger.  That caused them to come back.  After coping with some further assaults with the car, I faced six large fellows, all ready to beat me to a pulp, and all that saved me was a homeowner who appeared with a rifle and announced that he had already called the police.  Their behavior was not justifiable in any event, but I shouldn't have encouraged them to respond.

While I have never had problems with being assertive on the road, I have myself acting less assertively in other circumstances, so I can sympathize with someone who finds these situations difficult.  A book that helped me is Manuel J. Smith's When I Say No I Feel Guilty.  It gives some techniques for dealing with criticism and stating your point of view.  For some strange reason, Smith says assertiveness should not be used with bosses and police, but that is the time when assertiveness (and not passiveness or aggressiveness) is most important.  Another excellent book is PET (Parent Effectiveness Training) by Thomas Gordon which looks at negotiating problems without the "you" messages that get other people angry.  In addition, the book makes a clear distinction between passive, aggressive, and assertive behavior.


Take Responsible Action vs Irresponsible Reaction  Mike Munk gives a similar yet different explanation of how to behave in the event of confontations with motorists.

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