Dangerous Altruism

An open letter to well-meaning motorists everywhere.  A common and aggravating problem that is very nearly on topic.

Dear Motorist,

I presume it is with the best of intentions that you give up your right of way and stop in the middle of intersections to allow my sorry ass to cross.  Thank you, now please don’t do it again.

Think of what you’re asking me to do.  You want me to ignore the law and well established rules of the road and ride my fragile contraption in front of a comparatively armored vehicle operated by a likely agitated driver, across two or more lanes of traffic, only one of which is (maybe) controlled by you.

I know, you’re a good person and excellent driver and you’re just looking out for me.  But especially in multi-lane intersections, you have no control over motorists in one or more adjacent lanes and probably can’t even see them.  Furthermore, you’ve parked your car/truck/SUV/van/RV/Urban Assault Vehicle smack in the middle of my line of sight to traffic that might be overtaking you in the adjacent lane, or about to swerve around you through the shoulder or median because they don’t understand why a vehicle is parked in the middle of a perfectly good road.

I can’t think of a benefit to taking you up on your gracious gesture.  I’m probably already stopped, so any momentum that would carry me quickly across the intersection (incidentally my favorite rationalization for the wacky Idaho Stop Law) is shimmering in waves of heat rising from my brake rotors.  I run the risk of confusing any motorists paying attention and completely freaking out any who aren’t.  I reinforce the motorist’s misplaced sense of good will, increasing the likelihood that another cyclist will be subjected to the same bad behavior.  I guess one positive is that it gets me out of an unholy standoff with a crazed motorist.  But at what cost?

No, not even remotely worth the added risk.  No matter how emphatically and graciously you wave me on, I’ll wave back and wait you out.  But I’ve been doing this a while and have the experience and maturity to make rational decisions.  My 13-year-old daughter, not so much.  She’s just beginning to ride on her own and my biggest fear is that she’ll be lured into a dangerous situation by a well-intentioned driver and creamed by a car.  Sure, I’ve taught her the proper way to handle these situations, but the pressure of a command coming from a person of overwhelming authority (Adult! In a car! Waving me on!) will almost certainly win.  Please consider the enormous responsibility you’re taking on by casually waving a child through an intersection.  Then don’t do it ever again.

If you think I’m overreacting, consider that this happens to me every week or two.  And for every time that is benign, there is one that would be truly dangerous if I played along.  This isn’t just a “get off my lawn” moment, but that’s the way I’m treated when I bring this issue up.  “Oh, Kurt, can’t you just get along?  Just accept the gesture from the nice motorist and move along.”  Okay.  So why is it that the misguided gesture from a law-breaking motor vehicle operator is valued above the law-abiding cyclist trying to increase the odds of making it safely home?  Keep in mind that in this situation I’m waving the motorist on just as emphatically as he’s waving me on—why is he considered gracious while I’m considered an asshole?  I think under the surface there is a strong bias at play: he’s a rightful user of the roadway and can therefor grant magnanimous concessions to lesser cyclists.  The cyclist is a guest on the road, allowed to operate through the grace and benevolence of motorists.  And that, dear readers, is Fucked Up.

The rules of the road aren’t difficult to understand and they don’t change when one of the vehicles is a bicycle.  If the cyclist is being an idiot, by all means stop. Otherwise, just follow the rules and take the right of way if you have it.

Thank you for your attention.

6 thoughts on “Dangerous Altruism

  1. mkzig

    This is EXACTLY on point. It would be great to get this in front of a larger cycling audience (perhaps slightly shortened and, uh… sanitized?) such as AC, LAB or even Bicycling Mag. It would be facinating to know if there are statistics on the number of accidents with this as the primary cause. Not likely…


  2. Kurt Post author

    Yeah, I wrote this about a year ago in a fit of pique, and tabled it because it sounded too angry, profane, and crazed. Yesterday I wrote a much more polite version for a thread on my neighborhood’s Nextdoor site. And then I decided I don’t really care how crazed I sound on my own site. Get off my lawn!

    Here’s a sanitized, abbreviated version without the conspiracy theory:

    Motorists, please don’t wave cyclists through intersections. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been waved into moving traffic by well-meaning (I presume) motorists. If the cyclist is being an idiot, by all means stop. Otherwise, follow the well-established rules of the road and take the right of way if you have it. Particularly in multi-lane intersections, a motorist can’t see what’s happening in the surrounding lanes, and cannot make a safe decision for a cyclist. My biggest fear is that my 13-year old daughter will be waved to her death by the perceived but misguided authority of an adult doing her a “favor.” Don’t take that kind of responsibility for another person.


      1. Kurt Post author

        Heh, if you ride a bike, I guarantee you’ve experienced it before. Probably worse on a trike because, you know, we’re all handicapped.


  3. Gretchen Ziegler

    Damn Kurt, this is the letter that I’ve fantasized about writing for a few years. Yes, too long for a newspaper letter-to-editor, and for a general audience like that, the style is slightly above most heads. The short version is too short, and sanitization not totally necessary IMO. So a middle ground version would be great. And truly, this letter should probably be posted to various cycling sources to be personalized and used by cyclists across the country. This must surely be a common issue,and ,probably more so with trikes. I think you are right, motorists assume it is a handicap situation.



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