By Alex Glenn
Bicycle commuting has enjoyed a huge popularity surge in recent years. Since 2005, bike-commuting rates have jumped 46% nationally, on average, with exponentially larger increases in many big cities, according to the League of American Bicyclists.
But with cars and bikes increasingly competing for the same road space, those on both sides of the lane can turn a bit surly. The tension between drivers and cyclists sometimes escalates into frightening bouts of rage and even intentional damage and injuries, particularly in major cities where road space is at a premium.
- June 2016: A San Francisco cyclist was sentenced to probation for blocking a woman's station wagon during a citywide cycling gathering and smashing her window with his bike lock after, he claims, she'd hit him.
- May 2016: A Florida cyclist, reacting to being cut off, reportedly followed the offending driver home and threatened him with a knife, ultimately stabbing his spare tire and slamming the man's hand in a door jamb.
- August 2016: An Alabama motorist was charged with reckless endangerment and criminal mischief after running over a man's bike with his car after the two had been arguing about right-of-way laws.
What often begins as a humdrum commute to work or a relaxing weekend excursion -- for either cyclists or drivers -- can become mired in both legal and financial issues.
Drivers struggle to identify with cyclists
A fundamental problem in driver-cyclist dust-ups is that many motorists don't use bicycles, says Steve Taylor, communications manager for the League of American Bicyclists.
When drivers get annoyed with other drivers, he says, most understand that it's an isolated incident; as drivers themselves, they realize it's not proof that every motorist is a nuisance. But that rational thinking goes out the window when a bike rider ticks them off.
"If drivers come across one cyclist who's a jerk, they assume all cyclists are jerks," Taylor says.
Many drivers believe they take precedence on the road, and that cyclists are invaders, says Leon James, an author and University of Hawaii professor specializing in road rage psychology.
While driver's education programs teach motorists the rules of the road, they fail to offer guidance about the emotional aspects of driving, he believes. Drivers aren't taught that intolerance toward cyclists is a form of hostility, and may wind up thinking they're higher than bikers in the commuting pecking order.
This may explain why, to certain drivers, seeing a cyclist run a stop sign or delay traffic becomes more than merely annoying -- it's a slap in the face. Or worse, a lit fuse.
Cyclists caught in a vulnerable state
If motorists' rage is driven in part by their perceived superiority on the road, cyclists' anger may stem from the opposite: intense vulnerability.
The type of vehicle people use can influence their mindset in traffic, James says. Cyclists are reminded how defenseless they are every time they get on the bike. Given their precarious position, they may react defiantly when they perceive drivers as behaving in a threatening manner, such as following too closely or not leaving a cushion when passing.
"We don't have bumpers or barriers around us," Taylor says. "Being assertive when you know you have the right of way is crucial."
Of course, being assertive is a far cry from taking a bike lock to a driver's window like a battle-ax.
Cyclists can be led down the road to aggression by the misguided notion that they're standing up to motorists in the name of all cyclists. "Anger plus self-righteousness is the classic recipe for road rage," James says.
He urges bike riders never to seek revenge in the name of cyclist justice. If riders find themselves in disagreements with drivers, they can do more for themselves and their brethren, James says, by maintaining positivity and not being directly provocative.
How insurance can help
A car insurance policy is the go-to financial safety net when things go wrong on the road. Here's how insurance can (and can't) be used in road rage situations that have arisen between drivers and bicyclists.
Bicyclist batters car with object
The cyclist: No insurance will pay out for intentional damage you do to someone else.
The driver: Suing the cyclist is an option. Or you can turn to comprehensive car insurance, if you have it, which covers vandalism.
Car and bicycle collide; driver is at fault (accident not intentional)
The cyclist: Whether you have injuries or bike damage, you can make a claim against the driver's liability insurance.
The driver: Assuming the cyclist makes a claim against your policy, your liability insurance pays for the cyclist's injury treatment and vehicle repairs, up to your limit. If your car is damaged from the accident, you can make a claim on collision coverage, if you have it.
Car and bicycle collide; cyclist is at fault
The cyclist: Bicycle insurance, if you have it, may help pay for repairs to your bike and your injury treatment, as well as your liability costs if you damage the driver's vehicle. If you don't have bicycle coverage, your homeowners or renters insurance may cover personal liability costs. If you have car insurance with personal injury protection (often called PIP), that may help pay for injuries, or you can turn to your health insurance for your medical costs.
The driver: You can make a claim for your vehicle damage through the rider's bicycle, home or renters insurance. Failing any of these options, you may need to take legal action.
Cyclist slashes driver's tire
The driver: The slashed tire is considered vandalism, but it's probably not worth making a claim on your comprehensive insurance, if you have it. Your deductible would apply to the claim, so you'd probably net little or no money.
Car door is intentionally shut on your hand
Whether you're the cyclist or the driver, suing is an option, or you can make a claim on your health insurance for medical treatment.
Looking to shifts in attitude, changes in road design
Driving tends to be sorted into two main styles: aggressive driving and defensive driving. James advocates for a third option: supportive driving.
Many commuters treat traffic like a race or a competition, wanting to be first in the lane, first through the intersection, first to the destination. But, James says, we could achieve safer and faster travel by thinking of traffic as a coordinated activity in which we rely on one another.
Emphasizing intervehicle etiquette in driver's education programs, as well as creating more education programs for adults that focus on sharing the roads, may be the keys to sparking this attitude change.
Taylor also believes certain changes in road design could help foster a more considerate mindset. Traffic lights with separate signals for drivers and cyclists, he says, could help stagger traffic flow and open up space in intersections, which Taylor cites as particularly troublesome spots for cyclists.
"Protected" bike lanes, which are separated from the main roadway by a low concrete divider, posts or even parked cars, are another potential solution. Protected bike lanes exist in 34 states, and they reduce injuries per bike trip by 28%, according to the cycling advocacy group People for Bikes.
If protected bike lanes aren't an option, Taylor suggests a counterintuitive fix: narrowing the driving space slightly, such as by designing centered bike lanes that run along the street side of turn lanes rather than the curb side. Taylor argues that traffic is safer when cyclists are more conspicuous, as motorists are forced to take accountability for helping keep them safe and are less easily lulled into dangerous behaviors like speeding or turning without looking.
Driving and riding supportively is also in your financial interest, no matter your vehicle of choice. Cyclists aren't required to have insurance, and those who don't will have to pay for others' injuries or damage, as well as possibly their own, if they cause a crash. Again, cyclists who also have car insurance can usually get riding-related injuries covered if they have personal injury protection.
If drivers are at fault, their liability insurance will pay for a cyclist's damage and injuries -- as long the crash isn't intentional -- but drivers may face higher car insurance rates at renewal time as a result.
Alex Glenn is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.