Why are some drivers so reluctant to share the road?

Dangerous hostility toward bicyclists is rooted in distrust of those who are different.

 

Michael Wolcott is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He writes from northern Arizona.


The German couple was out to see America by bicycle. It was day two of their big adventure, a perfect springtime afternoon. We met by chance on U.S. Highway 180, halfway between Flagstaff, Arizona, and the Grand Canyon.

I was making the 40-mile trip by bicycle back to my eco-shack in the boonies, pulling a single-wheel trailer loaded with groceries. They were outfitted for a month-long ride with stout panniers and lightweight camping gear. We stood astride our bikes by the side of the road, chatting in the sunshine.

Bicycle tours can become dangerous when drivers are reluctant to share the road.

The two had flown into Flagstaff the day before and planned to watch the sun set that night on the south rim of the Grand Canyon. “We still have jet lag,” the guy said, but we can’t wait to see it. This is great.

A big motorhome swept past, and we all leaned, involuntarily, away from it. I mentioned that the road was far safer at night, when there’s less traffic.

“Oh, we won’t be riding at night,” the woman said. “We’re here to see the West. Forty-four miles so far. What a beautiful road.”

Indeed it is. Route 180 climbs the west flank of the San Francisco Peaks through ponderosa pine forest, tops out in bright-green aspen groves a mile and a half above sea level, then drops 2,000 vertical feet into the high desert.

I asked my new friends what they thought of the traffic. Sharing any pavement with motor vehicles is risky for bicyclists, but Route 180 is truly a death trap — crowded with tourists in a hurry who generally look everywhere except at the road. Shoulders, where they exist, are less than 18 inches wide.

“Oh, it’s not so bad,” the guy said. “I was a little scared by the drivers at first, but now I’m starting to trust them.”

“Well, don’t!” I practically shouted, then reeled out my bike-load of worries onto the formerly blissful travelers. We agreed to ride together for a while, and headed off, single file and way over on the right side of the road, where we belonged.

But the driver of the big Dodge Ram was displeased anyway. He came up fast behind us, stood on the horn, and sped up as he passed us — so closely that if he had hit a pothole and swerved, he would have creamed us. Then he stuck his arm out the window and flipped us the bird.

Welcome to America, I thought, the land of Get Out of My Way.

The Germans were puzzled by the incident. “What just happened?” they asked.

I explained that there are lots of angry people in America. For some reason, the sight of a bicycle on the highway really triggers rage in some drivers. I said that in my years of bike touring I’ve been cursed at, swerved at and spit at. A beer bottle has been lobbed my way. More than once, a stranger has yelled out the window, “Get a job!”

To my knowledge, there is no statistical link between bicycling and employment status. Maybe there’s some research I don’t know about. But I do have some guesses about where this kind of inexcusable behavior comes from.

Perhaps some of you are thinking, “Well, that driver in the truck was probably just fed up with bicyclists who don’t obey the traffic laws.” Maybe, but even if that were true, the driver’s pointless, threatening display was way out of proportion to any perceived “offense.” And there was no actual offense, by the way: We two-wheelers were following Arizona traffic laws to the letter.

No, that kind of hostility comes, I believe, from deep in a person’s psyche: a disdain for and fear of people who are perceived as different. To some drivers, the bicyclist is the “other,” the one who is different. And difference, for some at least, presents a threat. To these people, the other can’t be trusted, and the other shouldn’t even be here.

That distrust makes no sense, but humans do not always make sense. Despite our undeniable skill at abstract reasoning, we are largely irrational beings, with violent tendencies. Fear of the other just is.

This fear is probably at the root of most of the world’s ailments. It sparks wars, fuels religious persecution and keeps demagogues in business. In the past, it has led to lynchings, and it leads to unarmed black men being shot in America today.

And on a perfect spring day in Arizona, it could have gotten three bicyclists killed on a highway. Imagine that.

High Country News Classifieds
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • ANNUAL FUND MANAGER
    Working closely with the Foundation's leadership, the Annual Fund Manager is responsible for the oversight and management of the Foundation's annual operating fund. This is...
  • DATABASE ADMINISTRATOR
    Looking for someone who loves public land and understands the value and importance of data in reaching shared goals as part of a high-functioning team....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The conservation non-profit Invasive Species Action Network seeks an executive director. We are focused on preventing the human-caused spread of invasive species by promoting voluntary...
  • NEW BOOK: A FEAST OF ECSTATIC VERSE AND IMAGERY
    Dynamic fine art photographer offers use of images to raise funds. Available for use by conservation groups. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com.
  • WANTED: TALENTED WRITER
    Write the introduction to A Feast of Ecstatic Verse and Imagery, a book concerning nature and spirituality. Contact at www.anecstaticgathering.com. Writer who works for conservation/nature...
  • MT STATE DIRECTOR- THE WILDERNESS SOCIETY
    The Montana State Director is a member of The Wilderness Society's (TWS) Conservation program team who plays a leading role in advancing the organization's mission...
  • HIGH COUNTRY NEWS EDITORIAL INTERNS
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is looking for its next cohort of editorial interns....
  • THE MAGICAL UNIVERSE OF THE ANCIENTS: A DESERT JOURNAL
    Bears Ears, Chaco Canyon, and other adventures in the Four Corners area. 60 photos and lively journals. Purchase hc $35 or pb $25 from bigwoodbooks.com...
  • DIRECTOR OF PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE - HR
    Career Opportunity: Director of People and Organizational Culture Do you have interest in approaching organizational culture from a place of creativity and curiosity? Do you...