From “Hey, You #*%!!” To “Dear Driver”

mary_beth_kelly.jpgMary Beth Kelly is a psychotherapist and a co-chair of the Transportation Alternatives advisory council. Photo: TA

It‘s hard to be nice when you’re angry. Once your sympathetic nervous system kicks in — the fight or flight response — it is such a challenge to regulate your affect. I know. I struggle with it almost every time I get on my bike in New York City.

It is rare that in the course of pedaling from point A to point B — starting out in a good mood, minding my own business, obeying the rules — that a motorist isn’t rude or downright dangerous toward me. I take it personally. After all, wouldn’t anyone smaller and less protected feel frightened as well as dissed? And since I am more of the “fight’ than “flight” kind of gal, I have to get a grip — a tight one, or I will put myself in the very danger that I am trying to avoid.

I recently met a couple of guys who are taking my problem (perhaps "our" problem) to heart, and putting some creative energy into a solution.

Dear Driver, the brainchild of Erik Fabian and Josh Weinstein, is a combination self-regulation tool and cyclist/driver communication conduit. Like many good ideas, it isn’t complicated.

It works like this. You cut me off, almost door me, or yell at me for taking street space, and I take a deep breath and hand you a nicely printed letter for you to read when you park your vehicle.

What does it say? Essentially: that I felt endangered, and that I hope you will take a moment to read a brief note that helps you understand who I am (a woman of a certain age, a psychotherapist), why I bike (I love it and its non environmental-impact), the challenge for me on two wheels (particularly since 2006 when my husband, Dr. Carl Henry Nacht, was killed on his bicycle), and what the rules of the road are for us both.

My letter then invites a response at the website where the driver might become even more enlightened about city cycling. Clean, controlled, even sweet — it replaces the hand gestures and angry retorts that keep us agitated, and allows us to quiet down our activated nervous system to enjoy our ride. Dear Driver, listen up, indeed!

  • Marcus Aurelius wrote, “If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now. (VIII. 47, trans. George Long)”

  • Andy

    It’s a nice concept, but even here in a small city, talking to drivers reveals that they just don’t care. It’s usually about once a week when a driver pulls some obnoxious move endangering me to some degree. Occasionally, I see them park nearby or when it’s warmer out (with windows down) I roll up to them at the next stop and say a few things. I try to remain as calm as possible, and explain that their dangerous maneuver got them to the next stop no faster (since I’m talking to them). They generally seem completely uninterested and might apologize but sound completely unapologetic while doing so.

  • Seems like a good idea, but unfortunately we are dealing with the segment of the population that makes a loud honking noise that can be heard by everyone either on the streets or in buildings for several blocks when they are mildly inconvenienced. In other words, I don’t believe they speak English. And since people of different cultures (And they are of a different culture, considering that, in addition to an entirely different language, we live in New York City, and they live in an upholstered cocoon) tend to be more receptive when they are communicated with in their own language, I am recommending a modified version of the “Dear Driver” letter:

    Derp Derp DEERRRRP,

    Honk! DEEERRRRRRRP!!!! Honk! Honk! Honk! VROOOOOOOM!!!!!! DEEEEEERRRRRRPPPPPPP!!!!!

    Vroom Vroom,

    DEEEERRRRPPPPP

  • As a militant pedestrian, I used to flip off every driver who irritated me. One day I was crossing a corner with a stop sign and wasn’t sure if the driver was going to stop or not. My itchy middle finger was about to go into action when I realized the driver was smiling and waving at me.

    He was my doctor. I sheathed my weapon just in time.

    This forced me to re-examine my behavior. I decided to become more civil and never to use the middle finger again. If you see a bunch of peds crossing against a red light and annoying motorists, and there’s one guy holding back and respecting the law, that guy will be me.

    If a driver endangers me, I yell, but don’t subject them to torrents of

  • …abuse.

  • glenn

    Is there a way to make complaints against drivers if you can’t catch up to them and deliver a letter?

    For instance could a service be set up where I fill out a form online addressed to the driver of a car that I only got licence plate # for? If people are willing they could declare under oath that their statement is true or risk perjury. Then when a driver gets a moving violation the judge could look up complaints against that driver/vehicle. Or it could be something even insurance companies could look at?

  • Andy

    I never use the middle finger. If they are honking or otherwise being obnoxious, I’m not going to get into the rage game. I just smile and wave or give a thumbs up.

  • This seems like a great idea. I agree that public remonstration does change people’s behavior. Just think how much passenger etiquette has changed on NYC’s subways and buses starting in the 1980s, when getting attacked began to lose its power as a disincentive to asking fellow passengers to take their bags off a seat, turn the radio off, etc.

    Folks should be aware, however, that there is a law against putting pieces of paper on people’s cars in New York City. The goal is to reduce pollution, but unfortunately the rule also serves to pad the insulation drivers have against dealing with the safety of others on the road.

  • I used a similar tactic for a while when I was commuting by bicycle in Dubai. I was pretty much the only one riding to work as far as I could tell, and many motorists in Dubai (who make New York drivers look like angels) didn’t think I belonged on the road.

    After several months of frustration and yelling at cars I finally started carrying around a copy of the vehicular code and handing it calmly to drivers. Most people were rather dumbfounded or apologetic – though I still had arguments with several people.

    I eventually dropped the tactic, because it was too draining to constantly be confronting people. I was arriving home each day in a foul mood. I finally realized that there was no way I could single handedly educate the entire motoring public, and the only way I could be happy when I arrived home, was to not get angry in the first place.

    This tactic seemed to work for me – I was much happier upon arriving home, though I still kept the road rules in my bag in case there were any seriously egregious cases.

    For a slightly less succinct version:

    http://dubaisansauto.blogspot.com/2009/05/five-stages-of-grief-commuting-in-dubai.html

  • Kristen

    Can I get ones to give to cyclists? “Dear Cyclist, I hope you will take a moment to understand I was crossing the street, at the appropriate time, at the crosswalk, holding the hand of a two-year-old, while you, coming the wrong way down a one-way street, ran a red light and yelled at me to ‘get the f–k out of [your] way.’ I hope this note fosters better cyclist-pedestrian communications. Best Wishes, Me.”

  • Jeffrey Hymen

    Thank you Kristen; saved me the trouble. I just deleted my example from yesterday–seemed unnecessary.

  • BB

    Honking the horn should be battery.

  • Kristen, you can definitely do that. People can be rude on bikes as well as cars. They can be rude while rollerblading, using pogo sticks, and I’m sure there have been cases of people being rude while sledding in the park on a snowy day. In fact, her website specifically mentions “Biking Rules” as a pedestrian-cyclist outreach program.

  • Did you read my mind? I had one of the first serious run-ins today. We only have 1 bridge in town, its over 50yrs old. I take the lane when riding across as i have had many people overtake me on it, including semis and large trucks. The bridge is 30m (if that) long. Apparently someone didn’t like getting held up for the 30 secs or less to cross the bridge until i got to the 2 lane road. He honked, served into my lane (his lane?) and then proceeded to go really slow off the red light. I’m good at going slow, so i’m not sure what his point was. Apparently he doesn’t like cyclists. I was thinking of doing something similar to that letter, except getting pics and putting them online, its a small community so people would be named and shamed.

  • I find that there are generally two categories of drivers here. There are those who think they own the road and that pedestrians and cyclists shouldn’t be inconveniencing them, thus justifying their harassing, threatening, and dangerous actions. Then there are the oblivious ones, which I find to generally be in the majority. If you get their attention for something they did to jeopardize a vulnerable road user, they will often apologize. The letter would work for the latter, but unnecessary. For the former, it’ll fall on deaf ears, and could even potentially put you in more jeopardy.

    The second category of drivers has taught me to minimize my kneejerk response to thoughtless maneuvers, because there was a time when I assumed malice on everyone’s part, and responded consistently with the middle finger salute.

  • Doug Irvine

    Of course, positive reinforcement is best. Wave and smile, thank you for not running me over back there. Normal bad behavior is best ignored. Egregious acts get not the finger but a raised arm palm facing up, sort of a “come on! I’m just trying to ride here, ok?”

    I drop my arm quickly to indicate I’m over it now and I’m not racing to the next light to curse them out.

    Avoiding the close calls is an art form in itself and deserving of it’s own post. My best advice is to not shrink off to the edge of the road. You have a right to your space and riding nearer the center of a two lane road forces cars to use the passing lane and not squeeze you into the curb.

    Every encounter with a car is a teaching opportunity. Take advantage of them to show drivers we’re human and have rights.

  • Westchesterite

    This proposal is very nice, but when I read the part about the husband who was killed on his bike, I get freaked out. I’ve been trying to decide whether to commute to a new job on my bike. Everyone I speak to about it says that I will get killed, and the more I read Streetsblog, the more scared that I become.

    Merrill Cassell’s death in Westchester, NY was a recent occurrence. Cars look at bikes as just an object to speed past. I like the idea above of the idea to report license plates of reckless drivers; is this something the police would actually investigate?

    Just mulling online today. Sorry if reads poorly.

  • Michael Steiner

    Westchesterite, in the last year i am pretty sure people also died in cars, yet nobody tells you not to drive because it is too dangerous? Yes, there are some risks riding a bike but it works out pretty well if you follow some basic rules. Don’t get discouraged by the nay-sayers. And i say that as somebody who commutes since a few years on a daily basis (winter and summer) by bike (and train) in Westchester, so i know one thing or two about riding a bike there … 😉

  • James

    Westcherite, like Michael Steiner, I commute and ride within Westchester as well. The more of us that are out there, the more drivers will expect to see us and the safer we all become as a result. That’s been the case in NYC during the bike renaissance over the last few years and while Westchester is quite a bit behind the curve as compared to the city, the rule still applies.

  • Herbert

    Dear Cyclist: Drop dead.

  • Merrill Cassell’s death in Westchester, NY was a recent occurrence. Cars look at bikes as just an object to speed past. I like the idea above of the idea to report license plates of reckless drivers; is this something the police would actually investigate?

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