Heart to heart with my cycling road-rage

by Andrew Dunstall


I find myself a little rattled today. I’m a cyclist, and this afternoon I had two close calls. Two separate instances where small mistakes by car drivers could have cost me dearly. I would like to work through here how I feel about close calls like these. (Of course, different circumstances would change how I felt.)

In the heat of the moment, I get angry. I shout at the offending driver. Not because I have something against cars — I drive a car, too, after all — but because little moments of thoughtless driving could easily mean I do not get home to my wife and kids. Little mistakes in a car can make me dead.

So when I shout at a driver in a car, I’m not attacking him or her as a driver. This isn’t a battle, and there is no war. I am trying to alert others to my presence on the road, my right to use the road, and his or her failure to observe that right. But, on reflection, perhaps that is not what the driver will take away from the situation.

I’m not really sure how to approach this from a Christian position. Certainly, as both cyclist and driver, a Christian aims to respect the relevant authority — the laws that govern the use of the road. But in both cases, I want to go much further. Christian road-use calls for wisdom that goes beyond rule-keeping, and it requires something like graciousness, perhaps. Can we fill in what this looks like?

Let’s try and understand the partners who interact here. First the driver. They are in the majority. Further, the technical sophistication of cars makes them quite isolated from the road environment, in comparison to the cyclist. They are relatively invulnerable in a low-speed urban context. Why are they driving? Probably running an errand, commuting, or ferrying kids. What are their expectations? Probably routine ones. Driving here and there is automatic, habitual. It merits a certain kind of habitual attention. They probably aren’t expecting an angry cyclist.

And the cyclist? Only a small amount of rubber, bike frame, and clothing separates the rider from the harsh reality of asphalt. She is intimately in touch with the road, feeling its bumps and contours, aware of its flaws and far more sensitive to them. She is more responsive to her surroundings than a driver is, but also moves and accelerates more slowly than a car (although faster than you might think — I frequently travel at 40–50kmh on urban streets, only marginally slower than cars).

Given this comparison, we might draw the conclusion that the cyclist, equal road-user that she is, is yet in a far more vulnerable position. So we might appeal to the Christian principle of care for the vulnerable as a guide for action here. But we need to say more: this places all the burden on the driver, and it may not help, anyway: pointing out cyclists’ vulnerability is only useful when the driver is aware that they’re there.

We may need to press ourselves a little further to think what it means to care for the vulnerable when we drive. We might try to question our expectations as we get into a car — try to intervene in advance by explicitly priming our responses in some way: Not every road user moves with a bubble (ie. a car) around them. Driving fast will not save you time, and you don’t need to accelerate past the bicycle in the narrow stretch — you’ll still reach the lights at the same time. Please, please, please, don’t use your phone when driving. There are many more points, but I think you get it. Relax, be calm, don’t rush, and we’ll all get there. If this can be your habitual attitude, then this is a gain.

On the other hand, what about Christians as vulnerable cyclists? This is where I need to work on something. Getting angry isn’t going to help anybody, and in fact, probably simply helps the false perception that there is a war going on. I need to keep my cool. In one sense I am vulnerable, but I am not defenceless. A bicycle is more manœuverable than a car, and I often have more time to respond than a driver does. So I do have a responsibility not only to abide by the road rules, but beyond this, to ride defensively, with an understanding of my vulnerability, and of the car driver’s expectations. If a driver makes a mistake, and I am unhurt, I should act as graciously as possible. No shouting, no flipping the bird. I, too, make mistakes. I can be thankful it wasn’t worse, and be gracious. This isn’t the time to try to ‘educate’ a driver.

Lastly, off the bike, both drivers and cyclists could consider what social institutions could change to improve things. It is then, off the bike and out of the car, that we have the opportunity to reason, talk, and listen at length. It is in this last situation that we might be identified as Christian. In being a peacemaker, in considering the vulnerable and disadvantaged here, the efforts of Christian drivers and cyclists might also be recognised.

I’m not laying down the law for your behaviour here: I cannot simply rant and rave about the mistakes of drivers, and all the while leave the log in my own eye. I’m addressing my own heart. You just happen to be privy to the conversation for once. 

Andrew Dunstall cycles to get around, get fit, and be happy. He drives cars, too, for at least one of those reasons. By day, he is a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Macquarie University.