Saturday I had the scare of my life. A driver decided she did not like me cycling on the road and decided to act out at me from behind the wheel of her car. Yes, a grown woman decided it was appropriate to use a 2000 pound car to threaten another person on a bicycle. And no, I really have no idea why.
The law in DC is clear- “A person driving a motor vehicle shall exercise due care by leaving a safe distance, but in no case less than 3 feet, when overtaking and passing a bicycle.” Additionally cyclists should “Ride with the flow of traffic on the right half of the roadway.” (They are allowed on the left when it is a one way road.)
Saturday I was running errands by bike as is my habit these days. I had just left Adams Morgan and was heading to Tenley Town via Connecticut Avenue when I was passed closer than I had ever been passed before by someone driving an orange Honda Element. There were mere inches between me and the vehicle when I was passed. The light had turned red just before this happened so I was next to the driver in a matter of seconds. “Three feet to pass, please!” I said loudly at her passenger side window, hoping she would hear me. She barely seemed to register that I was there. I moved up toward the top of the crosswalk since there were no pedestrians and I like to make sure I am visible to cars in traffic. Somehow the blinking rear red light, bright red jacket with reflective trim, and various bags I ride with does not always seem to alert them to my presence.
The light turned red and I started off, my focus split between the hill that is Connecticut Avenue in front of me (I really do not enjoy hills.) and listening for the approach of the too close driver again. The road is three lanes heading north, with two travel lanes and a parking lane. I was in the right half of the right travel lane putting me at a safe distance from getting doored by a parked car and completely in compliance with the law. Just as I started to wonder when I was going to be passed again by the driver in the orange Element, I heard a noise that made my heart leap. “HHHHHOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNNNNKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!!” There was a really loud horn right behind me. I really dislike when frustrated drivers cannot control their impulse to use their horns in such close proximity to bicyclists and I have yelled at more then one for it. Then it happened again. “HHHHHOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNNNNKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!! HONK! HONK! HONK!” WTF? And I glanced around my left shoulder to see the driver of the orange Element directly behind me, less than a foot off my rear tire and refusing to go around. I decided to ignore her and deal with the hill. “HHHHHOOOOOOOOOOONNNNNNNNNNNKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKKK!!! HONK! HONK! HONK!” Oh, no she did not! I stopped my bike, turned around and yelled “I have every legal right to be where I am in the road!” There may have been a F-bomb in there. Frankly, I would have been surprised if I did not use at least one. As I turned to start pedaling again I noticed a group of people on the opposite sidewalk staring. I started up the hill again, hoping she would finally just give up and go around. Unfortunately she did, even closer than the first pass prior to the traffic light. I do not know if she clipped me but I did lose my balance and luckily remained upright. I started reciting her license plate number over and over out loud “DL2472DL2472DL2472DL2472DL2472DL2472DL2472DL2472DL2472DL2472.” I tried to recall her features as I stopped, shaking, and pulled my phone out of my pannier to call 911. By the time the operator came on the line I was sobbing hysterically and still shaking. It took her a little while to get me calm enough to get the information she needed. I was told an officer would get there when they could.
It was cold out. I was dressed for moving and not standing in the open on a sidewalk but I was determined to file a report on this woman. I finished the last bit of coffee I had left and moved to a location on the sidewalk where I hoped it would be easier for the police to see me. I started to calm down and make a plan for how I was going to finish the rest of the day out on my bike. I had a lunch to get to in Bethesda at a specific time, but the rest of my day was flexible. Planning, and tweeting about what had just happened, began to calm me. AND THEN SHE DROVE BY AGAIN! In the opposite direction! The police were not in site yet so I called 911 again in a new panic and watched as she headed south and turned onto Calvert into Adams Morgan where I had come from prior to this happening.
An officer pulled up minutes after my second call to 911 and before I had a chance to calm down again. At first he seemed a little skeptical at my insistence that there needed to be a report. “What, exactly, do you think this should be written up as?” he asked me at one point. “She threatened me with a deadly weapon!”
I do not know if he was convinced at the beginning or if he felt doing some paper work was easier than dealing with the crazy lady, but he started to take down my information. The amount of detail I had seemed to help (description of the vehicle, license plate, some description of the driver) and I kept to the facts when he answered questions. At one point when he was writing, a person rode by with a child in a child seat on the back of their bike. We both saw them and I asked “What if she had been behind them and not me?”
Any initial reluctance or skepticism I felt the officer had displayed when he first arrived seemed to be gone at the end of our conversation, especially when I thanked him for taking the time to take this seriously and to make a report (the report was filed as “Threats” and contained her car information and a brief description of her). He told me he used to bike, a lot, but had given up over 30 years ago because of the way people drove. He was glad to see that more people were biking and the city was being more supportive in the way of infrastructure. I told him we needed the police too because those of us that are out there deal with crazy stuff from drivers every day and while you can brush most of it off, people like the woman that got behind me cannot be allowed to behave that way and have her actions go unchecked. He wrote all the information down for me regarding the report and his details and we wished each other a Merry Christmas and told one another to be safe out there.
One thing he did tell me before going, and that I hear from my SO a lot, is that while I was right about the 3 foot passing law I may not want to point that out to people. As crazy as that woman was, there are crazier people out there. Nearly every daily DC cyclist has a similar story. Evan Wilder films his rides and caught an example of just how insane people can be behind the wheel here. Another cyclist in my neighborhood, MG, who puts thousands of miles in on her bike on an annual basis had an equally scary experience recently. Another local cyclist was recently hit, is still recovering, and did not have nearly the good experience I did with the police. In probably what has become one of the best known incidents of driver on cyclist harassment in DC (at least in biking circles), a driver went after a female cyclist, who just happened to be an off-duty police officer and a bike cop no less, while she was on a bike. She gave a statement in court this morning and at last report this guy is scheduled to be sentenced on the 9th. I have mixed feelings about allowing this kind of behavior to pass without comment. I really do not want to be injured, or worse, riding my bike. However, if we let people act this way and they think they can get away with it they are just going to keep behaving inappropriately and the severity of these incidents will escalate.
I have to deal with stupid shit every day because people get behind the wheel of a car and decide they are the most important person out there and the laws do not apply to them when it is inconvenient or because they are in a hurry or because they are tired of traffic or for whatever excuse they make to themselves to justify their behavior. People make illegal u-turns across bike lanes without looking constantly in DC and are always ignoring the no turn signs and other traffic control signals near them (hint- if the traffic light displays a green bicycle but not a green light, you cannot go as the driver of a car and the same with a red arrow when you are making a turn). I have had people make turns on red without coming to a full stop and right into my right of way, even following me for blocks flipping me off in front of their child because I dared to say something about it. I have had people nearly hit me and never know it because they are too busy yapping away on their cell phones (cell phone use without a hands free device is also illegal in DC). Every day I deal with pedestrians that have little regard for the cross walk signs. They look at me and actually make eye contact as they step off the curb in front of me, forcing me to make a dangerous swerve to avoid crashing into them. The day after this incident, three teenagers walked right into my path when they had a “Don’t Walk” then cursed at me and tried to kick me because I told them to watch what they were doing as I swerved out of the bike lane and into traffic to avoid them. I am sure if any driver sees this post they will attempt to make me regret even posting anything condemning any driver, even one that threatened me with a vehicle, because as far as a majority of drivers are concerned everyone on a bicycle constantly breaks the law and cyclists do not act the way drivers do (they believe they are law abiding but a majority are not). The internet is strewn with vile comments made at people who have the audacity to get on a bike by people “forced” to sit in traffic all day and who feel constantly inconvenienced by it. You know what? I own a car and I drive it too and it would NEVER occur to me to behave this way toward anyone else on the road. I think, if anything, my time on a bike has made me a calmer and more courteous driver because I know there is always going to be more traffic and even if I get that jump on the other car, bike, or pedestrian right now there is just going to be another one down the line. Those few seconds here and there add up to a minute or two at most, which are not worth risking anyone’s safety for. When I am driving, it is not the bikes and pedestrians slowing me down it is everyone else in their cars.
I have nieces that are nearly 4 and nearly 5 years old. Over the past few months I have taught them to love bicycling through the use of a trail-a-bike. I love seeing their faces light up when I tell them that yes, I brought my bicycle with me for a visit and of course we can go for bike rides. They are getting their first bikes for Christmas and I cannot wait to see their faces. The older of the two, however, is deathly afraid of cars and even the suggestion that anyone would ride out on the main road is enough to cast a shadow on her face. She told me that if we rode near cars they would hit us and we would die. Couple that with a statistic that I heard when I attended WABA’s Women’s Bicycling Forum- the number of female bicyclists starts to drop in equal numbers from their male counterparts as early as age 8- and I am worried that there will come a point when my nieces do not see bicycling as something safe and fun that they can do any time, any where, and it will be relegated to a trail activity dependent upon someone driving them and their bikes to another location for riding. It certainly does not help that they live near the most dangerous stretch of road for bicyclists in their state. Honestly, I have yet to tackle it as an adult for the ~4.5 miles I would need to be on it from my father’s house to my sister’s house. (I used to sometimes ride it as a kid, but there was a lot less traffic 25 or so years ago.) Throw in the idea that you could be arrested for riding your bike to school and it is a wonder children’s bicycles have not been pulled from the market due to a class action law suit regarding safety.
As scared as I was on Saturday, I will not be giving up my bike any time soon. I will also not ride it less. I may consider who I make loud comments to a little more carefully but at my age it may be a bit of a hard habit to break. And because I love my nieces and it makes me happy to see how much they like their bikes now I am not only going to ride with them every chance I get, I will be filing a police report on any driver that threatens threatens me like I was threatened on Saturday to make the roads as safe as I can.