Vigilante drivers

I’ve been thinking about a post on vigilante drivers even before starting this blog, but my experience yesterday means this is the topic for today.

vigilante: any person who takes the law into his or her hands, as by avenging a crime

Yesterday afternoon is was riding home from Howe Avenue Elementary School, there to provide lessons in pedestrian safety. Southbound on Howe Ave, there are no bike lanes, but there are three traffic lanes and traffic was light. As I rode in the middle of the right-most lane, 11 or 12 feet wide, not wide enough to share with a motor vehicle, vehicles changed lanes to pass, in a smooth flow of traffic, and I had gone quite some distance with no issues. One vehicle behind me decided to do otherwise. The driver started honking and yelling, and when I did not move out of the lane, accelerated hard past me, coming close enough that I felt some part of the vehicle brush my sleeve. It is hard to say whether she intended to kill me or to intimidate me, but in either case she was acting as what I call a vigilante driver. These are people who are sure that it is illegal for you to be riding your bike on the road, and since no law enforcement is present, decide to take the law into their own hands and become judge, jury and executioner, using their vehicle to carry out the punishment.

For those of you not familiar with the California Vehicle Code (CVC), it says in CVC 21202 that bicyclists traveling slower than the normal speed of traffic must ride as close to the right hand side as safely possible, except when passing, preparing to make a left turn, avoiding hazards, or if the lane is too narrow. What I was doing is completely legal, and in this case was the only safe place and way for me to ride. But such subtleties are lost on vigilantes, who know what the law says without needing to read it. Thank god I wasn’t also wearing a hoody, or I’d likely be dead.

I realize that there are people who feel bicyclists should not be on the road at all, and some who feel it’s OK as long as you are in the gutter. These attitudes are more prevalent the more suburban the setting, as suburban dwellers are more likely to feel a sense of entitlement to the roadways. The percentage who go on to become vigilante drivers is small, thankfully, or there would be dead bicyclists littering the roadways. When I ride in the suburbs, I often get honked at and yelled at and flipped off, but it has been a while since someone was so aggressive with their vehicle.

The vehicle was stopped just ahead by a red light at Enterprise. The driver attempted to pull into another lane to run the red light and get away, but she wasn’t able to maneuver between others cars so I was able to pull alongside. I can identify the driver, and the passenger. Sadly, I can also identify the child passenger in the back seat. This person used her vehicle as a deadly weapon with her daughter in the car. As the CHP officer later said, “that’s great role modeling.”

So, I called 911, and the proceeded to write down details on the incident on my cell phone. Apparently I was so upset that the license I gave the dispatcher and the responding CHP officer was incorrect, and she was never able to find a matching vehicle and driver in the database. So this vigilante driver got away with it. I’m sure she is gloating, and I’m sure she will try it again. I feel as though I’ve failed in my responsibility to other bicyclists by not getting the info correct.

So, what have I learned?
1. Get the vehicle license number, because without that, everything else is moot.
2. Get a photo of the vehicle showing the license plate, which documents the vehicle brand, model, and color as well. Why else am I carrying the phone?
3. If safe, get close enough to identify the driver. If you cannot make a positive identification, law enforcement probably will not cite the driver, though a competent law enforcement officer will at least talk to the person and put them on notice that they have been tagged as being a violator.
4. If safe, get a photo of the driver. This clinches it.

Of course, if you are actually injured, there may be witnesses, but I’m doubtful if anyone even saw this incident or would have understood what was happening. In any case, no one stopped.

When the CHP officer first arrived, she asked where I was riding and started to explain that I had ride on the sidewalk or as far to the right as possible, not in the lane. When I pointed out that the lane was too narrow to share and that the CVC gave me the legal right to be where I was, she immediately backed off and we moved on to trying to identify the vehicle and driver. I’m not going to give the officer’s name, as she turned out to be quite a nice person and really went the extra mile trying to match a vehicle and driver. But I will point out that this is a frequent reaction of law enforcement officers, that the bicyclist must have been doing something unsafe, and it’s better to just not be out there on the road.

So, if you see or are the victim of a vigilante driver, please do your best to document it and report it, so we can get these psychopaths off the road.

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