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Two days in a row on my commute home I've had vehicles behind me start honking at me. (Note: I'm in Canada, and drive on the right.) The first time I was riding on a four-lane road, with a left turning lane and a right turning lane, in the second lane in from the right (since I was going straight through). The driver behind me honked a few times, pulled up beside me less than 0.5m away (the next lane to the left was occupied, and the lanes are fairly narrow) and continued honking and started shouting at me. I waved at him to back off, but he ignored me and continued yelling.

The second time, I was on the same road but not at a point with a right-turn lane, so I was hugging the curb. Again, a vehicle behind me started honking until a gap in traffic in the next lane over, when the driver passed me (this time with appropriate clearance and without any further fuss once they were no longer behind me).

Especially in the second case, I wasn't sure what the driver was honking for, i.e., what they wanted me to do. Go faster? Get off the road entirely? What should I do to determine whether someone is honking at me for a legitimate reason or just out of impatience? And how do I respond to what, as far as I can tell, is unwarranted honking, to indicate to someone to back off a little if necessary or at least stop being dangerously distracting?

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About 30 years ago I came to the realization that one can be irritated by idiot drivers or amused by them. Granted, when the driver is effectively threatening you, it's harder to be amused, but to the extent you can it makes life a lot less stressful. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 15 at 2:29
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(But you might ask a cyclist friend to sort of "check" you and how you're handling that stretch of road. It sounds like you're doing it right, but another pair of eyes might see something you could do differently.) –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 15 at 2:30
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I'm in Wisconsin, an area generally well favored with bike lanes; more go in every time road work is done. Most drivers (who don't bike) have no clue about the laws regarding bicyclists. mto.gov.on.ca's cycling guide seems to call bikes vehicles as well, similarly to ours (at state level) requiring that drivers treat cyclists equally as traffic. That means that in busy traffic, your safer bet is to take up more of the lane. It's counterintuitive but good to know you're protected. As for the idiots, there's no helping them. –  Eric McCormick Aug 15 at 14:58
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When I learned to drive (back in the dark ages - we were driving dinosaurs, but in principle it's the same thing :-) we were taught to honk our horns when we went to pass someone in a passing zone on a two-lane road, to let them know we were passing them. (This was in the day when EVERY car had a V-8, and you'da thunk that the roar of a gigantic engine winding up would have been clear evidence of intent, but... :-). Anyways, he may have been trying to tell you he was passing you. More likely, though, he was just being a jerk. –  Bob Jarvis Aug 15 at 20:37
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@Izkata It's not right at the busiest point, but a little earlier at both ends. There's almost always plenty of space and traffic can still flow well in the remaining lanes, there just happened to be a few cars beside her right then. It's not like she was stuck for minutes. Regardless, my alternatives are to illegally ride on the sidewalk or double my commute time taking a longer route around with insanely poor road surfaces. I want to get home, too. –  Michelle Aug 17 at 19:17

6 Answers 6

up vote 21 down vote accepted

Broadly, not a lot. Legally it's probably technically unlawful on several grounds (horn not used as a warning device, causing alarm, loud noise, possibly harassment), but they're all petty offences and unlikely to get a useful response from Police. If it happens in front of a cop they might pull the motorist over for a chat, but that's unlikely.

My answer to "Is there a polite way to take the centre of the road without antagonizing motorists?" might be helpful as it has links and some anecdata.

In my experience, no. The problem is that however polite you try to be you're taking the lane so you're in their way.

My suggestion is that you clearly take the lane (being assertive makes harassment less likely) and use daylight-bright rear lights. The lights are fairly affordable (see Nathan's bike light database) and I find they do help.

Going faster will help, if you can match the speed of the other traffic. Since most cyclists can't do that, going faster just makes your life less pleasant. And slightly more dangerous, because "the faster you go, the bigger the mess" (NZ and Ireland anti-speeding campaigns, both feature graphic images).


And to address gender since it seems important to some people: the evidence is mixed between "no affect" (Queensland, Oz) and "women get treated better" (the UK Walker study). Here're some typical quotes:

Of 1830 respondents, 76% of men and 72% of women reported harassment in the previous 12 months.

(Queensland)

{overtaking drivers pass closer to cyclists} when the rider wears a helmet, rides away from the edge of the road, is male, or when the vehicle concerned is a bus or heavy goods vehicle.

(UK)

One thing to remember is that the differences Walker found were small - 1.35m vs 1.40m passing distance. There are other studies, once you're past the first page of this google search it gets interesting.

This report cites references when talking about passing distances and how far from the curb you should ride, and talks to police and cycling advocates:

As cyclists we should be confident in taking up as much of the lane as we feel we need to in order to be safe. At a minimum we should ride 50cm from the curb but we should be confident in using more of the lane if the conditions dictate it — as a result of roadside obstacles, upcoming intersections, narrow lanes, potholes or any other factors.

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Covers just about every aspect I think. –  andy256 Aug 15 at 5:15
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Anecdata is my new favourite word. A) That's some good to know but scary (oversized vehicles pass closer?!) info. B) I'll have to check whether my lights are visible during the day. Thanks! –  Michelle Aug 15 at 12:25

My experience is mostly in Canada as well (southern Ontario), so perhaps I can provide a closer-to-home viewpoint.

I bike in a city with poor infrastructure that was designed for cars first, and everything else second (though that's changing). This means I get into a lot of situations where drivers honk at me, typically around 1 incident per 100km biked in-city. My experience is that there are several categories of drivers, and that appearance matters a lot in determining which ones are going to honk at you and why.

  1. Do-Gooders: Some drivers (usually elderly men, or soccer Moms in SUVs in my experience) think that cycling on the road is unsafe. If you look like a "cyclist" (i.e. jersey, eye protection, helmet, nice bike), these folks will usually leave you alone, and pass you carefully. If you look like a child (or IT worker, i.e. t-shirt, jeans, beater-bike or brightly coloured bike), then they will instead assume you just don't know what you're doing. Their response varies from approaching slowly from behind on an otherwise deserted street, and honking before they pass, to trying to get into a shouting match about how unsafe it is for you to bike on the road during a 50km/h descent. In general, what they want is for you to pull over and walk your bike to somewhere "safe" to "play". My view is that the best response is usually to shout obscenities at them, or otherwise make it very clear that you do not want their help. Otherwise, they will tend continue harassing you and create a dangerous situation.

  2. Not Fast Enough: These drivers want you to either go faster, or pull over while they pass you. I usually encounter them when biking on arterial roads (speed limits > 60km/h, > 4 lanes, few turns or lights). Usually these drivers are not confident they can pass you safely at speed, and traffic won't let them get around you. Rather than waiting until it is safe to pass (as they are legally obligated to do), they want you to get out of the way instead. I usually think of these people as well meaning, if perhaps a little misguided (at least they know enough not to pass you unsafely!). If there's no gap coming in traffic, and we're far from an intersection, and I think there's room to pass, I'll pull in closer to the curb and slow a bit so they can get by. Otherwise, I will move out directly into the middle of the lane, to make it clear that I don't want them to pass me here. Sometimes they honk a little more, but usually they'll just wait until there's room to pass. Additionally, I again find that these drivers are more patient if I look like a "cyclist" (i.e. if I'm on a training ride), than if I look like a normal person (i.e. if I'm just going to the store for a jug of milk), even if I'm travelling at the same speed. Gearing down and spinning frantically so that it looks like you're going as fast as you can may help.

  3. Near Misses: These drivers have (for whatever reason), nearly hit you. They are honking because they are surprised and upset. Usually this will happen when I'm where drivers don't expect me to be (for instance, if I'm taking the lane and they speed around the corner without checking). Usually you can ignore these at the time, and think about how to adapt your cycling strategy in that area for the future.

  4. Friends: These drivers think that they know you (they could even be right). They are honking because they want to say hello, and they don't realize how loud car horns are when you're not inside one. I don't know what to do about these. You can tell your friends not to do that, or to be lighter on the horn, but sometimes people you don't know will do it any way. Just keep rollin'.

  5. Enemies/Trolls: Some drivers actually want to kill you. Or at least, give you a scare. These folks will usually try to dive very close to me, and blast their horns while passing. Sometimes they'll also falsely warn you about a flat tire or dropped item, though this depends on the region in my experience. I usually encounter them on country roads, or roads that lead toward the country. If you want to give them a taste of their own medicine, you could get a loud noisemaker of your own (like an air horn), and blast it at them in response. Otherwise, not much to be done. Unlike groups 1 and 2, these people might be more inclined to harass people who look like "cyclists", though they might just harass anyone one a bike period.

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I would add a sixth type I've run into: Trolls. These people think it's cute or funny to get your attention with the horn, then yell falsely that something's wrong -- "Your rear tire is flat!" is the commonest, but I've also heard "You dropped something!" Nothing much to do but ride on. –  dsalo Aug 15 at 21:08
    
@dsalo Good suggestion. I don't encounter Trolls much at home, but have when I've biked abroad. I've lumped them in with "Enemies" in the last section, and updated the text accordingly. –  John Doucette Aug 15 at 22:40
    
Extension of 2, note on my commute home and a vehicle behind me started honking until a gap in traffic in the next lane over from the question. I think that not only is this the most likely, I think he's also blocking traffic in his lane without realizing it, turning the 4-lane road into a 3-lane road at the busiest part of the day. Not a good thing at all. –  Izkata Aug 17 at 17:22
    
@Izkata I realize I'm blocking the lane for the points where the lanes are narrow, yes, but there's nothing I can do about that. I agree my second example in the question was probably a "not fast enough" (or possibly a "do-gooder"). –  Michelle Aug 18 at 13:48
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@Izkata Actually this isn't really a bad thing. Notwithstanding that in rush hour in most Canadian cities, bikes travel about as fast as cars, and that Michelle is taking up less space by cycling than by driving, in most jurisdictions (and, to my knowledge, all Canadian jurisdictions), cyclists are permitted, and even instructed, to take the entire lane when it is too narrow to share safely. From a legal perspective, any lane which is less than about 8ft wider than a typical car is too narrow to share with a cyclist. Michelle is being courteous by allowing cars to share her lane at all. –  John Doucette Aug 18 at 17:14

Bullying

I am assuming that you are female, given that your screen name is Michelle.

While there can be many suggestions about safe riding, the main point here is that these (male?) drivers are just bullying you.

Plain and simple.

One solution some cyclists use is to carry an obvious helmet camera, so that their behavior is witnessed.

Edit: on rereading your question, I see that I did not answer the how to respond part.

My response to this behavior is always to put on a big smile and wave vigorously. After all you have lots of friends: it must be one of them!

Such a response seems to rob them of their power over you. And it feels good too.

Take care out there.

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Probably worth noting that a female driver can just as easily bully a male cyclist. Everyone's the tough kid in a giant metal death monster. –  Michelle Aug 15 at 2:20
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Why did you have to bring gender into this? o.O There's no evidence so far that gender is related in any way, so you're just raising gender-based stereotypes for no reason. Y'know, there's a word for that. –  Lightness Races in Orbit Aug 15 at 10:54
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The truth is that women get harassed by guys more than guys by anyone. I didn't bring gender into it - it was already there. In a perfect world it would be great if it wasn't a factor. –  andy256 Aug 15 at 11:06
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@DanielRHicks Haha, I think I almost passed for "ladylike" once... Andy: I'll have to try the smile and wave thing. Not something I would have thought of! –  Michelle Aug 15 at 12:19
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Yeah, smile and wave is probably a good approach. Show them they haven't gotten under your skin, even if you have to grit your teeth doing it. If you seem irritated that just encourages them. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 15 at 12:22

If you're in the correct position, you can either fight, flight or embarrass. If you're in the wrong place, than just admit you're wrong, wave an apologetic hand and move on.

Assuming you're in the right (and it sounds like you were), then first option is to fight. A scowling look, with a snarling "what?" and then pointing out the helmet cam on the lid generally works for me. (Whether the camera is on or off doesn't matter, most people don't like the thought that their fractious behaviour could come back to haunt them).

Second choice is flight. Just cycle on out of there, don't stop, don't look back, just bravely run away. There's no shame in that. The car is bigger and heavier than you and will beat you in a fight. Running away from a bully doesn't help to change their behaviour, but you'll live to fight another day. They don't give out bravery medals to cyclists adopting the primary position.

Finally, there's the more nuanced option to embarrass. It really helps here to start smooth and make direct contact. I'll sometimes hold their eye and start talking. They'll then be forced to open a window (if it's not open already), then I'll make a spurious guess at why they were beeping me "oh, sorry, did I drop something and you were letting me know?" - ultimately you're trying to get them to tell you that they think you shouldn't be there. At which point you can invoke the helmet cam, or just call them an narrow-minded, blinkered idiot and just carry on your day.

Sometimes, instead I'd ask them if they'd have behaved like that if I'd been a cop, or their mother, or their child. Chances are very slim that they would. Just force them to think for a moment.

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I think it would be wise to avoid any sort of confrontation which could provoke the idiot to further reaction. –  Daniel R Hicks Aug 15 at 11:38
    
@DanielRHicks you're not wrong, but I'm firmly of the opinion that you can only educate someone by standing up to them. While it might very well be the case that you might not want to educate them (or that they don't want to be educated), the only way the bad driver gets to learn he's bad is by being told - he won't work it out for himself. –  Unsliced Aug 15 at 12:43
    
I like the question "would you have honked at me if I was a cop". That is a great way to frame the problem. –  Floris Aug 15 at 15:03

What is their intent? To get you out of their way, and to get you off the road. You already know when your tire is flat, something fell off, or your shirt is un-tucked. Sometimes you might get a quick beep if they are going to pass. You might know the person as well and they are being friendly, but I asked my wife not to honk at me from behind.

How should you respond? First hold your line and be alert for situation changes. The horn is just noise, you are there legally. They already see you so most likely they are not going to run into you on purpose. Considering it is rush hour they are probably more concerned with getting to work than trying to bump you off your bike and causing a scene. I will move over to the center of the lane (from the "outside" tire track) when people honk at me to mark my space. If shouting occurs, I give a simple "No thanks, drive safe". I then try to laugh it off and enjoy the performance boost of the adrenalin. If you are in a suburb type area, you probably won't get the chance to confront them anyway. For more fun, if you are right behind them at the red light, you can shout back to tell them to hurry up they are going too slow when it turns green.

Another point that I have noticed is that anybody that honks or causes trouble, you will likely not to see them again. I can name about 7 or 8 problem drivers I have had in the past, but only 1 of them was a repeat offender. The distribution of problem drivers is pretty random as well, you'll find good stretches and bad. It all comes down to the timing as well, nobody sticks to a perfect schedule.

However, I only have a few thousand miles of commuting on moderately used roads. My advice might be my undoing today.

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Thanks for the edit @Mσᶎ. Must have been one of those days for me. –  BPugh Aug 17 at 5:01

If somebody in a car draws level with you and you feel the situation is dangerous, just brake and they'll whizz by. I've done this several times; the motorist has never tried to stay level or slowed down to let me catch up. And even if the motorist does slow down, you can just stay safely behind them, where it's much harder for them to hurt or intimidate you.

Of course, their goal isn't always intimidation: I once had a motorist draw level with me and their passenger wound down the window and started asking me for directions!

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