Sacramento Bee columnist Stuart Leavenworth’s timely editorial on July 20th highlighted a phenomenon which regular road cyclists are unfortunately very familiar with: the “joke” of swerving a motor vehicle into a bike’s path to intentionally frighten the rider.
Leavenworth’s excellent piece focused on Sacramento-based radio talk-show host Mark Williams, who was recently expelled from the National Tea Party Federation for characteristic racist comments. Leavenworth points out that Williams has a history of hate-speech, but that his ire is not solely directed at African Americans, socialists and Muslims. In 2005, Williams went on the air to actively encourage motorists to swerve at cyclists. His comment stirred up furious responses from regional and national bicycling groups, and Williams issued a hasty apology, but much of the damage had been done.
Williams’ dangerous and offensive comment echoes similar remarks by British celebrity chef, James Martin, who has also advocated for reckless endangerment of cyclists. In an article published in the conservative tabloid The Daily Mail, Martin expressed his loathing of cyclists before gleefully recounting one recent effort to cause actual bodily harm to a group of English riders. Martin side-swiped the riders on a narrow country lane, using the powerful but silent electric Tesla sports car to execute his thoughtless and illegal stunt.
“The look of sheer terror as they tottered into the hedge was the best thing I’ve ever seen in my rear-view mirror.” He bragged, remorselessly. Like Williams, Martin issued a weak apology afterward, in an apparent effort to stave-off the flurry of criticism and a popular Twitter campaign to lambast the irresponsible TV chef.
As cyclists know all-too-well, riding on roads without adequate dedicated cycle lanes can be very frightening. Many of the roads in the Sacramento area that offer the best cycling terrain are unfortunately among the most dangerous for riders. Rural, isolated arteries offer great opportunities for challenging climbs and beautiful scenery, but on these roads the risk of encountering a cyclist-hating driver appears to be much higher. Rarely can cyclists enjoy a ride on some of the spectacular roads in Placer and El Dorado counties without being intimidated by dangerous drivers. Familiar techniques of intimidation include sudden acceleration past riders, leaning on the horn, yelling profanities, swerving into the cyclist’s path, throwing objects or actually forcing riders off the road.
Cyclists who have experienced intimidation at the hands of a driver may be unaware that they are the victims of assault. The law defines assault as “the threat of bodily harm coupled with an apparent, present ability to cause the harm”, which certainly includes the implicit or explicit intent by a driver to threaten a cyclist with his or her vehicle. Indeed, perhaps if more drivers were aware that what seems like an hilarious joke actually constitutes reckless endangerment and assault, they might be less inclined to target cyclists.