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Interview with Leon James

Frank Mungeam   Car vs. Bike Encounters  October 11, 2007

Frank Mungeam is a graduate of Harvard with a degree in Psychology. He is an author and freelance writer who spent five years as a bicycle tour guide leading bike trips on the Big Island of Hawaii and across the Western U.S. Mungeam now bike commutes to work, and was once a poor bike racer. Book publisher Richard Perry is a longtime cyclist and owner of Collectors Press. On to the questions. I familiarized myself a bit with your background from your web site, but please correct me if I got anything wrong.

1. In terms of motorist road rage, what are the primary triggers...and who (age, sex, vehicle type) is most prone to rage?

We need to consider two meanings for road rage. One is overt assault, and this a legal definition. The other is emotional rage, and this is a psychological definition.

In terms of overt expressions of road rage, we include gestures, words, menacing vehicle maneuvers, and physical violence. These overt expressions are strongly conditioned by cultural rules of when one is justified to express anger physically and verbally. Men express overt violence more frequently than women. This applies also to assault in road rage duels between motorists. Drivers of sports cars and SUVs report driving more aggressively than drivers of other cars. More women drivers today report driving aggressively than before. Younger drivers report a higher incidence of driving aggressively or with hostility, and this is reduced as drivers get older.

In terms of emotional or psychological road rage, both men and women drivers regardless of type of car they drive, report experiencing habitual hostility towards other drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists, road construction workers, and police. See data here.


2. To what extent do the causes of car vs. car rage ALSO apply in car vs. bike situations?

In terms of physical assault, some drivers express hostility towards bicycle riders in various ways, either direct assault and battery, or intimidation and insult. These drivers also do this to pedestrians. There are also bicycle riders who assault motorists, or band together in groups to obstruct traffic, or to express their right to "share the road." These tactics arouse the anger and retaliation of some drivers who are affected.


3. With more cars spending more time in traffic, and more people biking...are cyclists at growing risk of motorist rage?

Yes, if nothing is done to remedy the situation. Often the cyclists are also the motorists, though at different time. Aggressiveness behind the wheel against other road users is expressed even by drivers who at other times are cyclists. When driving a car people take on the mentality of motorists. When driving bicycles they take on the mentality of cyclists. It is the same with pedestrians.

This is because each road situation arouses its own contingent perspective, thinking, and emotions.


4. What kinds of things do bicyclists do to irritate/anger motorists?

Motorists get anxious and frustrated, then angry, if they see cyclists riding as if they have the same right as cars to be there. Motorists feel that they have the right of way because roads are primarily for cars.  So drivers want cyclists to act like they are sorry they are there holding up cars from going faster. Cyclists can reduce hostile feelings in the drivers by acting like they are trying to get out of the way, and apologizing for inconveniencing the driver. The anger and indignation of drivers increases when they see cyclists band together or ride in a way that says "I've got as much right to this as you do."

Of course cyclists do not want to act in this way to assuage the anger of drivers. They find this demeaning and unjust. So the battle between them will increase, both on the road, and by political activism. 


5. How might the rage dynamic be DIFFERENT with cars vs. bikes (i.e., does it matter that the driver is anonymous and the rider is not? The driver is protected and the bicyclist is exposed?)

The consideration of vulnerability and risk may persuade cyclists to withhold their expression of hostility overtly, but emotionally and politically, the cyclists' frustration and anger grows in intensity all the time, and especially after a scary or denigrating incidence. Because of tons of armor around them, drivers feel safer to express overt hostility against cyclists. They can speed away and leave the hapless cyclist in the lurch.


6. What should a bicyclist who encounters a raging motorist do to stay safe?
7. What can bicyclists do to avoid triggering motorist rage?

Cyclists should remain aware of the physical risk to them when confronting a motorist. They should be aware of how the driver feels at the moment of the encounter. This is not relevant to the fact that cyclists have both legal rights and human rights, and that a driver may be violating those rights. This is true, but not relevant when it comes to a confrontation. The only thing relevant at that point is how to back out of a dangerous situation safely.

Do not confront the driver. Do not say anything that challenges the driver emotionally. Resolve to do something better when an incident occurs. Be prepared. Write down the information and the details, and report the driver to police.

The most important strategy for cyclists is to avoid upsetting drivers deliberately. Use political methods to gain what you want. In the meantime, do what is safe for you and your family and community.


8. I've interviewed bicyclists that admit THEY experience feelings of rage while riding on the road. What can riders do to diffuse their own rage?

To drivers I recommend the threestep program, and this also applies as a good strategy for bicyclists. It involves a change of philosophy from "I've got the right to be here" to "How do I maximize my safety today." All battles should be fought in the political arena, not on the road. Once you make up your mind that this is your best, safest, most rational, least painful alternative, you need to train your emotional reactions. Be prepared before you get on the road. It helps to look at notes you take right after each ride or encounter with motorists. Record your thoughts and feelings. Evaluate them. See how dangerous they are, and how non-productive. Each time you hide your anger from a motorist, count it as a victory for you. You succeeded in staying safe and rational.

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