Cycling In A Violent World

Words matter. Nowhere is that more evident than in the trench warfare currently being waged over the term ‘accident’ in reference to motorists killing and maiming people walking and riding their bikes. Most law enforcement agencies have begun to appreciate why this term is unacceptable, how it perpetuates a lack of accountability and a culture of victim-blaming. Unfortunately, major media outlets like the New York Times still cling to this intellectually dishonest word, continuing to use us it in the face of transit advocate backlash. It is encouraging, though, that a far more correct term is coming into common speak: ‘traffic violence’.

It’s been said that cycling advocates should adopt the branding methods of the auto industry: Never talk about the dangers of your product. Never harm the positive imagery you’re painting to sell the bike experience. With so many potential riders afraid to put foot to pedal – it’s important not to perpetuate the myth of these harms. Truthfully, the harm is not in cycling, it is in driving, the harm drivers impose on human beings around them. We tend to overstate these risks in our discourse due the vast imbalance of danger between one mode over the other. While promoting cycling on the merits of fun and not scaring away the novices, it’s important to be honest in our dialog – motorists do kill thousands of people every year in lethal acts of violence.

The term ‘accident’ has become so common, it seems, because most people refuse to believe that someone would intentionally use a two ton steel machine traveling at speed to run down and crush the body of another human being. Yet drivers do this all the time. They did it in Portland in June 2007 & May 2012Monrovia in July of 2013Astoria in 2010, Oklahoma City in August 2013Bristol in February 2012Norwich in May 2013Washington DC in September 2011Los Angeles in April 2013Oakland in july 2012, Seattle in July 2013, Spokane in August 2010, Montreal in August 2012, etc, etc. These were just the first two pages of over 300,000 search results.

Lest you think such violent acts are momentary instances of road rage, it seems many are premeditated, at least in spirit. Social media is rife with flippant threats illustrating what truly little regard many licensed drivers have for human life when perceived as posing even the slightest inconvenience on the road.

Anyone predicting the world of riding bikes is becoming too boring likely hasn’t contended with people like this lately. Most transit wonks and bike bloggers like to imagine that we’re all out there sharing the road with otherwise decent folk just slightly hindered by the empathy-dampening confines of the car. I’d agree partly, but there’s something deeply more disturbing about somebody consciously making lethal threats on social media, even if only in jest. Even without actual malicious intent, words still matter. This kind of language creates space where real hatred is allowed to fester unchecked – potentially inciting real violence in the future.

All the high-vis gear and super-strobing lights won’t mean a damn if some maniac behind the wheel picks you to murder with their car. There’s virtually no way to predict when such an act of violence might take place, no matter how politely you ride. With no means of prediction, are there means to prepare? What’s to be done with these psychopaths?

Liberal aversion to firearms aside, is any kind of self-defense weapon appropriate – or even effective – for use by the cycling community? A retractable baton obviously wouldn’t help much against a moving car, and would probably only come in handy if a motorist was foolish enough to get out of their vehicle – an act that would cede their power advantage.

Back in the days before the automobile, the biggest threat to cyclists were muggers, tramps, and ‘foot-pads’. Look that one up. In April 1901, one Marcus Tindal wrote at length in Pearson’s Magazine about the numerous methods of self-defense he felt cycle riders carried in their arsenal. Engaging assailants in evasive maneuvers, smashing thugs in the face with iron bike tire pumps, throwing your entire bike at an attacker, and apparently, yes, using a cane as a weapon were all advised means of besting a rogue marauder.

Not to be outdone, revolver manufacturers of the time saw a niche to exploit. In the waning years of the 19th century, pistols of compact design were thought well-suited for wheelmen and wheelwomen concerned with safety and concealability. Weight probably hadn’t dawned on them as a desirability factor just yet. Even eating shit while packing heat was something gun-makers knew riders were wary of – an unintended dismount shouldn’t cause an unintended discharge. For the afore-mentioned gun-shy liberals, nickel-plated squirt guns were also marketed to repel man and beast alike.


Still, these small arms were designed for piercing flesh, not steel. Nowhere were handguns designed for bringing down a speeding automobile with a round through the engine block. Today, such firepower exists, though the recoil would likely be ill-suited for balancing upon two wheels.

So, what to do about deliberate traffic violence? How does one stop a speeding motor vehicle when the driver intends to kill? Short of diving for the curb cut, not much. Any damage you could inflict on a moving car would be superficial at best, and likely wouldn’t contribute to your safety – to say nothing of easing hostilities.

Obviously the specifics differ based on individual scenario, but I’m at a loss to answer this question. Short of mandating computer controlled speed caps – or best of all, banning cars from cities entirely, there’s no easy answer. Maybe it’s time to open it up to comments.

What kind of personal experiences have you faced with hostile motorists who intentionally tried or succeeded in hitting you with their car? How did you defend yourself? Did fight or flight work better?


Thumbnail courtesy True Bikes of Liberty.


  1. Think the guy at the end of the video makes some good sense regarding armed self defense from the back of a bicycle.
    “Even if you kill the pilot the planes still gonna crash”. Now you might get along better if they know you was packing.”

    The best thing you can do, in my opinion is train yourself to remember license plate numbers, make, model, color and year of cars. Start training by taking down that info anytime a car driver does something, stupid, or inconsiderate (you should get plenty of practice that way).

    Then when you get into a rough patch you will have your best shot at having the driver punished for any criminal or civil wrongdoings. Punishment doesn’t help you in the moment but it may be all you get and if they run.

    This video is a great example of bystanders getting the license and video of a guy trying to bike rider who almost got run over by a car. The perp did time.

    Another thing folks are doing is wearing a go pro and running it constantly.

    I believe people have the right to defend themselves. I just don’t think a bicycle on a roadway is a very defensible position. It might just be better to be alert, cool, collected, and not think about it too much. There are plenty of “boogie men” out there and chances are you’ll sneak right by most of ’em.

  2. I have a few stories, but one comes to mind. Riding a wide open, 4 lane road I was suddenly accosted by a driver in a mini van. The driver appeared from nowhere, and in the in the blink of an eye was honking and literally wedging me toward the curb with his or her car.

    Lucky for me I had adopted a policy of riding – no matter the weather – with motorcycle gloves (for the padded palms, in the event of a fall). The winter gloves are battery heated. The summer ones have a titanium knuckle guard.

    When I saw that mini van coming at me, adrenaline took over. I punched that driver’s right side window with three good whacks. He backed off. I thought right the I was a goner, but I made it a long ways up to the next corner where I turned, got off the road and got my head together (the minivan never passed me – maybe stopped?)

    The point here is that the encounter was 100% intentional on the part of the driver. The driver purposefully brought his/her perilously close to hitting me (the horn confirms intent vice abject carelessness). And – think about it – for me to land some punches means the car was real close to hitting me.

    Since then, I’ve definitely considered riding strapped. What stops me is this: The event above notwithstanding, the driver that seriously intends to do me harm will be on top of me before I even know it. That, and I don’t think I could hit the side of a mini van shooting with my left hand…

    1. That’s a pretty harrowing experience, to be sure. Sounds like you’re right-handed. They say you aren’t supposed to cross draw unless in a seated position. Not sure how that would work on a bicycle.

    2. I’ve used my u-lock to break Windows while riding my bicycle. I don’t do it anymore because it’s just hard to reach for it in time to do justice. It’s now locked up on my rear rack. Have a piece of metal to key cars parked in the bike Lane and that is what I stick to.

  3. “Move you genius ass to the fucking right” is what the retired DC police officer John Diehl told me before running his truck into me and then he drove away. Only reason he was identified in his cowardly attack was from the video recording made with my camera. I’m a fan of this method of dealing with unhinged motorists.

    1. Heck yeah. Documentation is key. Neither fight nor flight, just film the bastards. I dig.

  4. I haven’t been intentionally run off the road (yet), but I’ve been harassed a number of times. In those moments, it’s probably good that I wasn’t armed, since who knows what I might have done in my moment of rage. I’m glad you’re calling out these a-holes who spout their homicidal nonsense on twitter, and wholeheartedly agree that we as a society need to start taking a zero tolerance attitude toward acts of traffic violence and harassment. Moreover, I believe the automobile itself fosters an anti-social mindset that can turn into sociopathy in some people. As usual, your unflinching look at this violence is much needed.
    If you’ll permit, I’d like to comment on the historical and class context of the ad for the “cyclists’ friend.” Such ads were common in the late 19th century and were a response to the grotesque inequality of wealth that bred legions of unemployed (i.e., “tramps”) who were sometimes compelled to steal in order to eat, since there was no social safety net in that era of brutal Gilded Age capitalism and social darwinism. It is important to remember that in the 1890s, the bicycle was still seen primarily as the plaything of a middle class with leisure time to ride, not the democratic mode of transportation it is today. In hindsight, what was needed was radical social change that would provide jobs and living wages for all, not guns for a fearful bourgeoisie.
    Then as now, radical social transformation is necessary for the sake of humanity and the planet. If the bicycle is to be a vehicle of that transformation (and I believe it must be), the real radical alternative is to reject the sociopathy of violence, power, and hubris inherent in the car system, not the arming of people on bikes.

    1. Agreed that marketing guns in this era was an elitist, classist enterprise. Yet the bicycle itself was affording methods of anti-classist liberation to many, as often suffragettes pointed out.

      “I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning-wheel we must all learn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair. We saw that the physical development of humanity’s mother-half would be wonderfully advanced by that universal introduction of the bicycle. We saw with satisfaction, the great advantage in good fellowship and mutual understanding between men and women who take the road together, sharing its hardships and rejoicing in the poetry of motion.”
      ~ Frances Elizabeth Willard, 1895 – from ‘A Wheel Within A Wheel‘

  5. I don’t think anyone’s ever actually tried to ht me, though I’ve been on the receiving end of classic punishment passes a few times, where the vehicle is used as a weapon to threat and and intimidate in a way that might easily end up with injury.

  6. I’ve found even touching a person’s car tends to escalate things rapidly. People get really overprotective, but are more than happy to wilfully disregard your safety.

    Cycling in London, the greatest ally you can have is a witness and a camera, with the witness the most important thing as the police are still wary of accepting footage out of context without a supportimg statement.

  7. Last Sunday on the 20th of April, 2014 I was taking two children to the Museum of Science and Industry in Portland. I had never been there before so I was crawling along about 10 miles per hour trying to figure out which parking lot to go into. I was not in the bike lane but close to it when a cyclist with a pony tail, dark hair, red shirt, black compression shorts and a helmet came up fast in the bike lane and yelled. So I moved slightly to my left to give him room and he went by and hit the front of my car, then turned his shoulders around to flip the bird. So I flipped him right back. Then he turned his bike around aggressively and rode up to my car saying I was driving in the bike lane. I told him I was turning into the parking lot and also gave him room. I was ready for him to attack me but I did not make any aggressive move. He sensed my readiness and so attacked my car with his foot instead and rode away as fast as he could to escape. I called him a coward as he rode off but he did not stop. I could not engage in a car chase with the children in the car or abandon them chasing this violent animal on foot.

    I will leave the story raw as it is and let people formulate their own conclusions. You need not believe me which is fair enough but if the same kind of people keep doing the same thing, then perhaps you will start paying attention. The people at the bus stop were appalled at the bicyclist’s behavior when he kicked my car.

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