The 2009 Road Rage Award Goes To…

By Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

The 2009 Road Rage Award goes to Dr. Christopher Thomas Thompson, 59. The doctor wins for speeding past two cyclists, slamming on his brakes, causing one to hit the rear window of his red Infiniti, and the other to suffer a separated shoulder. Dr. Thompson, unable to bear the (one-second, two-seconds, three-seconds) wait to pass the cyclists (who were riding 30 mph) decided he needed to “teach them a lesson” according to the police officer’s testimony at his trial in Los Angeles. Now Dr. Thompson will have to suffer the wait of 5 years in prison for his crimes against the two cyclists.Unfortunately cycling champion Ron Peterson, 40, suffered a severed nose, loss of teeth, and cuts across his face. His companion Christian Stoehr, 29, had to have surgery on his separated shoulder.
Some driver’s seem to get a schadenfreude kick out of scaring cyclists. Some will open their car door in front of an on-coming cyclist, then quickly close it. Cyclists pedal on with racing hearts hearing the violator’s fading laughter. Some drivers come up quietly behind the bicycle, then rev the engine loudly. Others drive by and throw things at cyclists like water bottles, trash and cigarettes. My husband, a cyclist, was the victim of a drive-by taco toss. Colorado passed a law making it a class 2 misdemeanor for a motorist to throw an object at a cyclist. Other states have passed laws to protect cyclists as well.

In some communities the hostility between motorists and cyclists has exploded into violence. Many motorists assume cycling fatalities are due to cyclists recklessness. In fact, according to a Toronto study, 90% of cycling fatalities are caused by motorist errors. Frightened cyclists attacked a car after the driver slammed into a group of riders at a Critical Mass cycling event in Seattle. Critical Mass and other groups around the world attempt to change community attitudes to encourage road sharing and safety.

If you get angry at cyclists impeding your speedy progress down the road, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can I peacefully share the road with slower-moving vehicles?
  • Am I stressed, worried or mad about something else in my life?
  • Am I angry because cyclists seem to have more fun than I do?
  • Am I mad because cyclists make me feel bad about myself for not getting enough exercise?
  • Am I blaming them for my failure to allow more travel time?
  • Is the effort it takes to lift my right foot up to apply pressure to the brake really that big of a deal?

These questions should help you identify your needs and take better care of yourself. If you have hostile fantasies toward cyclists, as Dr. Thompson probably did, then you need anger management training. Hostile obsessions threaten your serenity, health and happiness.

Most motorists would never do anything violent toward a cyclist.Yet sometimes accidents happen. British Psychologist Ian Walker, an expert in traffic psychology, found that people have a very limited ability to receive visual information. If you’re really good, like Sherlock Holmes, you can see 3 points per second. A motorist planning a right turn might look at the oncoming traffic (one point) the traffic light (second point) and the direction he’s turning (third point). Even a non-hostile, well meaning driver will often miss a cyclist approaching on the right.

Dr. Walker found that drivers develop expectations. If a driver expects to see only cars, she’ll miss the toddler’s three wheeler on the street. Dr. Walker also found that drivers see cyclists as like pedestrians, underestimating their speed. In studies by Walker and others, they found that formal hand signals used by cyclists were misunderstood at the rate of 20%. So even if a cyclist obeys all the rules of the road, many motorists won’t get the message. For some reason, driver’s response times slow down when they are trying to read the signals of a cyclist. This increases the likelihood that the driver will fail to respond in the time available.

So what’s a driver to do to prevent accidents?

  • Never get behind the wheel when you’re angry.
  • Keep your eyes scanning all mirrors.
  • Drive the speed limit and obey traffic signs.
  • Don’t drive while sleepy or intoxicated.

If you’re a cyclist you can increase your safety by:

  • Traveling on bike lanes and in areas where other cyclists frequently travel.
  • Using a blinking light, even during the day.
  • Wearing reflective clothing.
  • Refraining from riding while sleepy or intoxicated.

For more safety tips join a local bike club or check out these tips at Both motorists and cyclists should learn that reactivity breeds dysfunction. The more we react to someone else’s bad behavior the more the whole situation turns FUBAR. When we smile, apologize and express concern for others we can calm most hostile encounters. You don’t want to end up the Road Rage Award Winner for 2010.