Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

D.C. driver intentionally strikes a bicyclist in WABA's new video

September 7, 2011 - 12:50 PM
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The bicyclist hits the ground. (Photo: YouTube/WABADC)

Why the anger, travelers?

Whether driving, riding, or walking, transit has a way of awakening the rage in what might normally be an innocent, kind person. Today the Washington Area Bicyclist Association is focusing on that type of road aggression in a big way — and with video. WABA is spotlighting an August 31 clip that a D.C. area bicyclist captured from his helmet bikecam that shows a driver in a pick-up pulling alongside him, belligerently cursing, and then actually swerves to hit the bicyclist. The final seconds of the video show him on the ground cursing. You've gotta watch this:

The bicyclist had apparently just been riding along Rhode Island Avenue to work when this happened one week ago. As alarming as the video is, the anger speaks to a broader problem and doesn't entirely surprise me, even if it's hard to comprehend the emotions that could motivate such an assault. We saw that same aggression yesterday in the bus video I highlighted, the one showing a bus operator who, when confronted with a rider who wouldn't pay, grabbed the man by the arms and threw him off the bus and onto the ground ... with an audible thud. WMATA is now investigating that incident and calls it "completely unacceptable behavior." The problem also manifests for pedestrians in little ways. I talked to a Columbia Heights reverend last month who saw bicyclists riding on sidewalks as a real danger and had encountered explicitly hostile cyclists in his experience.

Why do these incidents happen? The aggression, hostility, and territorial possessiveness affect virtually all our forms of transit in varying ways and create a well of tight emotional insecurity that yields bitterness and outright assault as in these cases. At their root is fear and vulnerability.

Now, I'm not inclined to simplify these problems — they truly are big and dangerous ones, and they can't be written away with a token reductionistic thinking. But the predominant sense of vulnerability that transit and its traffic bring is what contributes to so much frustration that builds and releases in profoundly unhealthy ways (both mentally and at times physically).

What causes vulnerability? Threat and especially disparity of size. From a pedestrian's perspective, yes, those bikes on the sidewalk really do race by. From a bicyclist's perspective, cars are the beasts tearing across the land. Cars themselves often worry about the giant trucks that hurdle by on the highway. My own mother used to call them monsters. No one fully obeys traffic laws, and no one consistently enforces them. Ticket enforcers worry about getting assaulted, and this week, 19 new speed cameras are being installed around D.C. The default and wisely encouraged mode of traveling is caution. Caution, in turn, breeds mistrust. Add in attendant heavy traffic and little political frustrations and before you know it, road rage emerges.

In the case of this video of a cyclist being struck, WABA wants to create new legislation to allow bicyclists to bring civil suits after their aggressors more easily. I talked to WABA's executive director Shane Farthing earlier this summer when he first suggested such anti-harassment legislation — "It does happen frequently enough," he told me then. Now his organization has video proof, and they're trying their hardest to capitalize on the fervor that will inevitably surround it. Today's WABA news echoes his words then, and the biking organization says it wants to "creates a civil right of action for an assaulted cyclist. And, importantly, it provides for attorneys fees if the cyclist-plaintiff prevails — thereby providing an incentive for attorneys to represent the victim." What the move comes down to, for WABA, is justice. They're asking for support now, and as we've seen, WABA is quite good at marshaling support for certain biking causes. You can voice your own support here. Protecting assaulted cyclists fits right into the "new language of transit" that I referred to when describing WABA's tensions with the National Park Service. The legislation Farthing hopes to inspire would be full of new transit vocabulary speaking to that effect.

Such laws, of course, wouldn't necessarily stop the aggression that comes rippling through in this unsettling bike assault video and in yesterday's bus driver assault video — these laws simply protect the vulnerable. Is there ever a way to stop the root psychological instinct that leads to these violent transit encounters?

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