By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Some questions about a bicyclist and an enraged driver

After reading Tom Farragher’s Boston Globe column this morning about Chris Smith, a legally blind bicyclist who says an enraged driver got out of his car in Brookline and came at him with a baseball bat, I’ve got two questions.

  • Is it wise or even legal for someone who has lost much of his vision to be riding his bike on public ways? Aren’t we always told that cyclists have to follow the same laws as drivers?
  • Was it a good idea for Smith to rap his knuckles on the side of the car as they were both making their way through traffic? Farragher calls it “a signal of safety. I’m right here, it said, don’t hit me.” I wouldn’t. I’d call it obnoxious behavior by a cyclist, and at the very least I’d be giving him the hairy eyeball.

Let me be clear: There was no excuse for the driver to go off the way Smith describes. But I don’t think it’s all that clear-cut that Smith was in the right. Cyclists: I want to hear from you, either here or on Facebook.

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  1. Dan,

    While my three mile bike commute can’t compare to Smith’s daily journey, the story about an enraged driver blowing their top over a window tap sounds quite familiar. Last year a driver came within inches of knocking me over when they pulled into a street parking space without signaling. I tapped on the window to calmly and politely request that in the future the driver use their signal and look for cyclists who were riding to their right, and the driver responded with a loud and lengthy outburst in which he claimed my tap had caused major damage to his car and that he would have me arrested.

    I’ve also had to tap the windows or bumpers of cars who nearly killed me while attempting to park in a bike lane or who were unaware that a light had changed because they were texting.
    I understand that some drivers feel threatened by anyone touching their property, but ultimately they need to realize that a law-abiding bicyclist delivering crucial safety information is not going to carjack their vehicle or cause them bodily injury.

    I’m not sure what other options a bicyclist has when they need to get the attention of a driver who has their windows up. My bike bell can’t compete with most modern car speakers. As a driving colleague put it, “I’d rather have someone knock on my window than find myself knocking someone off their bike.”

    As for Smith’s vision impairment, there is of course no “road test” required for bicyclists. I think the fact that he bicycles 3,000 miles a year in Boston and is still alive is all that needs to be said about whether or not he can ride safely with his condition.

  2. Vision impairment? Looks to me like death-wish cycling. I’m equally disturbed to see cyclists, on busy roads, wearing earbuds.

  3. cynthiastead

    When a person is declared legally blind, their license to drive is immediately revoked. Eye doctors are mandated reporters to the RMV (which causes visually impaired people to duck the doctor, but that is another story). There is no ‘bike license’ but I cannot imagine an activity more unwise for a blind person than driving in traffic without control or perception or enviornment due to uncontrollable variables like others sharing the road. Let us say that your field of vision is dark from 6 pm to 9 pm – you don’t ‘see’ a black quadrant. The brain extrapolates, sort of photoshops, what is in the surrounding area, and you ‘see’ asphalt, etc. The fact that there may be a pothole, or a dog, or another car doesn’t matter – you see with your brain as much as your eye, and the brain abhors a vacuum (There is a terific film that explains this called ‘Going Blind’), Just because it may not be technically illegal does not mean it is a good idea.

    As far as ‘rapping’ goes, it fits a condescending ethos that many bike riders subscribe to. Bikes used to have bells and horns – honking a horn is not only a better way to get a driver’s attention, as they are conditioned to respond to such a signal, it also solves issues of invasion of space and property that hitting a vehicle does not.,

  4. Anne C. Fullam Goeke

    Considering the possible consequences to the bicyclist rapping on the window was a wise move. A more sighted rider may have done same. Bicyclist’s vision is a non issue here. Clearly he sees well enough to size up a situation. sent from my Samsung Mobile

    Media Nati

  5. Daily bike commuter here. Cycling blind seems like a pretty bad idea, but I’m really not an expert on what things people with disabilities can do. (I was shocked about a year ago to learn that not only are deaf people allowed to drive, but in fact it’s pretty common for deaf people to be commercial drivers.) I know I feel like I need all my senses when I’m on the road.

    As for window-knocking, there’s nothing “polite” about it. I’ve never done it, and I didn’t even know it was a thing anyone did routinely. It’s something I’d consider doing in an emergency (e.g. a car is merging on top of me and I have no escape), but certainly not any other time. I’ve screamed at drivers for driving dangerously and/or not paying attention, but only when they’re doing something blatantly dangerous and illegal.

    It sounds like Smith was riding reasonably aggressively: when there’s a line of cars waiting to make a right turn, it’s generally not a great idea to squeeze between them and the curb — either pass them on the left or just wait behind the cars. From my understanding of traffic laws (admittedly, based mainly on California, not Massachusetts), cars are supposed to merge into the bike lane before making a right turn, and bikes have no right to pass them in that lane. So I’m inclined to say that Smith was in the wrong here, even before he decided to knock on the car window. And just like drivers think anyone who drives faster than them on the highway is a maniac, cyclists think anyone who rides more aggressively than them is a jerk, so I’m inclined to think that Smith is a jerk, but I’ll admit that opinions on that matter may vary.

    The odd thing about this story is that there was a baseball bat involved. In most car-on-bike road rage incidents I’m familiar with, the car itself is the weapon of choice. I’ve had a driver intentionally give me a love tap at a red light as his way of telling me to get out of his way, and I have little doubt he would have done a lot more if he’d had a green. And no one ever gets in much legal trouble for hitting, or even killing, a bicyclist, so it’s a lot more likely they’ll get away with it.

  6. Mike Benedict

    Back in my city days, I would carry a water bottle and squirt the offending motorist.

  7. Nancy Nee

    As a law-abiding cyclist and a mother of three, I have no desire to die. I obey the rules and ride very conservatively wearing bright clothing, using lights (day and night and mirrors. I am assaulted ALL the time by drivers, every day. At the intersection of Perkins one day, I was riding home from Watertown with 50+ pounds of groceries in my trailer and in the clearly marked bike lane. At Perkins Street, the lane (which leads from Brookline) heads straight towards Jamaica Pond. Pumping as hard as I can up the hill towards the left turn at the light I am suddenly knocked off my bike by some woman blaring the horn 6 inches from my trailer. She need to turn right up the hill towards the Park School. I wasn’t fast enough for her. I was literally knocked off my bike by the horn. Turning back to her she was in a palms-up screaming rage. I struggled to hold my bike and trailer up while pointing to the bike lane that I am now standing in. More honks. I don’t move. I just scream “go ahead- hit me! It’ll pay for my kids’ college education!” I’m convinced that people in cars lose all their humanity. She’s in a giant Cadillac and within 3 seconds she could’ve been pushing 50mph going up the hill with the tap of her toe. SHe couldn’t wait 3 seconds for me to get out of her way. Every cyclist can tell you a similar story.

  8. Mike Rice

    Bicycling in the greater Boston area? Really? I suggest that you keep your life insurance payments up-to-date.

  9. Tom Keating

    Years ago, the League of American Wheelmen (now the League of American Bicyclists) had a program for city cyclists called Effective Cycling, which I was grateful for, as it trained cyclists like me to be rational riders, pay attention at all times to traffic, obey all road laws and rules, and never tap or squirt or bang on cars that got too close. (If the car was too close, you weren’t paying attention). To be sure, the motorist with the bat is wrong, but so was the cyclist.

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