Riding up to a roundabout with the due caution of potential death, disfigurement and, worse, damage to one’s bike, I noticed the peculiar sound of a screeching yobbo projectile vomiting every four letter word that his 24kb brain could muster. I don’t know what, exactly, he was saying despite his efforts to elevate his thoughts via sticking his ugly foam drooling face out the window of his penis-statement-making SUV, because I was listening to a vastly more entertaining podcast instead. But, I got the gist as he started to honk his horn while wildly conducting a flabby arm and one finger routine through which to choreograph his vocal wit. I was, you see, in his way. For once, I simply ignored the tirade, but I do confess I did slow down even more so that others could more completely savour this scene. Particularly the policeman standing beside his car just over the road. Outside his police station.Watching and shaking his head. Oh well, I guess that kind of behaviour is no longer a crime. I rode on, the troll drove off – seething and fuming over the 0.000006 second delay.
It’s irrelevant that my speed is usually at least matching the pace of the traffic in this car bloated town. Or that, indeed, we cyclists usually negotiate roundabouts with greater precision than the crash derby set ever achieve with their 2 tonne SUV’s. It’s irrelevant (if not horrendously disconcerting to) these NeanderCarls that we actually have the legal right to be on the road, or that we are saving fuel for them to use, and gassing them less, and taking up less space. No matter. To their 24kb minds the complexities of the world reduce to: bike bad, truck good. Big important, small not.
I’ve been reading Tom Vanderbilt’s interesting book ‘Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us). While not exactly a revelation of extraordinary insight, the book is a handy synthesis of notions scanned via what must have been years of library trawling (or, more likely, a few intense Google sessions). There’s an anecdote for all occasions. And I was in search of insight to explain my recent roundabout incident, not to mention my other pet cyclist-car driver peeves:
- why do car drivers always try to overtake serious cyclists when riding downhill; especially when we are at least keeping up with the cars in front
- why do car drivers always try to overtake cyclists (of any kind) when a car is coming from the opposite direction
- why do car drivers hate coming up behind cyclists at traffic lights, roundabouts and every other place where we are more than matching everyone else’s speed
- why the seething hatred some drivers are so keen to display
- why do car drivers never, ever, give way to cyclists with the right of way
- how is it possible for drivers to be blind to a cyclist wearing, say, a full fluoro-green Green Edge cycling kit while being completely tuned to cars colour-matched to the road, or to a grey rain challenged sky.
It seems that eye-to-eye communication is a key. Apparently, humans have evolved to resolve the complexities of communication through the proxy of a good old eye-to-eye stare. Think of The Look made famous by Lance Armstrong: a momentary eye-to-eye contact through which to establish who is predator and who is prey. Smash the enemy with a piercing glance. Prick their confidence with a single Look. Better than words, or a neon sign. A simple connection from eye to eye can make your message incredibly clear. Yes, connections from eye-to eye will certify all kinds of messages when you are out on the road. And that is one big problem when it comes to cars, or more precisely, for their drivers shrouded by a wall of sun-tinted glass and opaque tin. Cars filter our capacity for eye contact like a desert sand storm or a veil of hail. How do you make your connection when you can’t see to person to whom your thoughts are aimed? It’s like trying to make eye contact with Darth Vader. Under that disguise, who knew the man within is a feeble damaged mess propped up by an electronic array? Who new that the horn blasting troll giving you a hard time is really a flab-bellied, retirement-aged history teacher letting loose the frustrations of a lifetime of being beaten up by his wife…
With the disconnect of being unable to see eye-to-eye, motorists tend to behave differently than they would when their gaze is more exposed. Humans deprived of eye-to-eye contact tend to interact with less restraint than they would when standing face to face. How many people do you know who would scream abuse over such minor matters as a contested right of way when standing face to face as they might when under the shroud of anonymity afforded by their cars? Eye-to-eye contact tends to keep us civilised. We are adapted to transmit petabytes of evolutionarily accumulated social nuance and context via the electric shock of eye-to-eye contact. Take that away and we revert to social-context disarmed anarchy. Just as can be observed in internet chat rooms and the like. Or anonymous hate messages graffitied on public walls. It’s all to do with firing off our base primitive dysfunctional urges via the safety of being out of range. Of retaliation. Or recognition.
This all goes some way to explaining the behaviour we see on the roads. And bad behaviour is certainly not just targeted at cyclists. It’s all about the otherwise meek and mild awakening their beasts within once inside their cars. Everyone becomes a target of a road-raged tin-shielded troll.
So what happens when a car-shielded road troll encounters the blazingly lighthouse-like beacon of a cyclist’s unshrouded eyes? It’s at this point that Tim Vanderbilt’s book runs out of steam.
Car drivers can be breathtakingly anonymous. Cyclists (and middle-aged open topped sports car drivers) are at the opposite extreme. Not withstanding deep-tinted cycling glasses, helmets or tweed driving caps. It’s as though we cyclists are making an extreme statement of un-anonyminity. Perhaps we are like peacocks with tails to display. When we ride a bike, we are as stripped of a place to hide as a swimmer clad in nothing but speedos on the beach. We become a magnet in search of eye-to-eye communication. The anthesis of hiding under a shield of tin. Provocatively exposed to the communicative possibilities of face directed at face. Could this be construed by the 24kb NeanderCarl brain as something of a threat? Could be we construed as a confrontation; a I-dare-you-to-say-that-to-my-face assault to those who prefer to fire their tirades from the safety of a two tonne automotive shield?
When you think about it, most car driver road rage is executed much more by way of a drive-by assault than as a man-to-man* engagement on the front line. Yes, sometimes road rage unravels to the physicality of fisticuffs, and only then when a cyclist is silly enough to take the extraordinarily unexpected turn to fight back. But that’s much rarer than abuse delivered via a car horn along with a finger out the window. Road ragers would rather hit you with their car than they would with their fists. They are cowards by definition. But irrespectively, if you de-shrouded these people from their cars and put them eye to eye with those to whom their abuse is aimed, I’d bet their behaviour would be cooled quicker than the engines they’d be forced to leave aside.
If you doubt the power of eye-to-eye contact to defuse a road raged scene, try this experiment. I have tried it many times. It has worked every time. If you can, pull up beside the troll giving you a hard time (maybe when you are both stopped at a set of lights). Turn you head and give him* the eye. Don’t say a word. Just give him* The Look. Think of Lance Armstrong. Watch the abuse fizzle out. Watch the turkey embarrass himself* out of rage as quick as a punctured tyre. Watch him* flounder in defeat and plant his* foot to escape. This works particularly well if you are commandingly fit and lean; a menace of cycle fitness is ever more intimidating the more you can establish The Look.
Naturally, there will be exceptions to my theory. Perhaps giving The Look will ignite explosive decompression when the road rager’s brain power runs out. It’s probably best to simply ride away from any beer branded red neck ute with penis extension antenna masts whipping fifty feet up into the wind. Let Darwin do his work instead.
*Road rage is definitely not constrained to men! Some of the worst offenders are women. Cars do something to over-liberate the conventions of femininity as much as they do to emasculate the conventions of masculinity; road ragers become sexless beasts one and all.