Torpy at Large: This time the driver is the jerk in bikes vs. cars


Bicycles are classified under Georgia law as vehicles, so traffic laws that apply to all vehicles also apply to bicycles (unless the law prescribes otherwise). That means bicycle riders are required to observe traffic lights, for example. The rules of the road for bicycles:

  • Bicycle riders on a road must ride as near to the right side as practicable, except when making a left turn, avoiding hazards in the roadway, riding at the same speed as traffic, or when the lane is too narrow to accommodate both car and bike.
  • Bicycle riders may not ride more than two abreast except on bicycle paths and in bicycle lanes.
  • Riders in bicycle lanes must ride in the same direction as traffic.
  • When overtaking and passing a bicycle traveling in the same direction, motor vehicles shall leave a safe distance (a minimum of 3 feet) between the vehicle and the bicycle.
  • No bikes (or other vehicles) on sidewalks unless the rider is 12 or younger and is specifically permitted to use the sidewalk by local ordinance.
  • A car or truck shall yield to a person riding a bicycle in a bicycle lane.
  • Bike riders must be on or astride a permanent and regular seat (not the handlebars).
  • No more riders on one bicycle than the bike is designed to carry.
  • Infants younger than 1 year may not ride as a passenger on a bicycle; bicycle trailers and infant slings are OK as long as they are used according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  • No bicycle rider may attach himself or his bike to any vehicle on the roadway.
  • No rider may carry a package, bundle or other article that prevents him from keeping at least one hand on the handlebars.
  • Any bike used at night must have a white light on the front and a red light on the back (or, in some cases, a red reflector), each of them visible from 300 feet.
  • No one under 16 may ride a bike without a helmet.

Source: Georgia Governor's Office of Highway Safety,

I've often written about the uneasy co-existence between bicyclists and motorists and was last year subjected to the Spandex crowd's ire after detailing a testy incident with a sanctimonious jerk on a bike. One letter writer said I was "inciting violent behavior."

So, to even out the ledger a bit, here’s a story in which the role of obnoxious jerk is played by the motorist, in this case an anonymous goober in a tomato red pickup truck in Coweta County. I don’t mean to pick on Coweta, because jerks are everywhere, especially here on the unkind streets of Atlanta.

But there is something about people pedaling roadways that impels otherwise normal and law-abiding folks to commit stupid, mean and even dangerous acts.

Here is one such case.

This month, Diane Davis and 500 other bicyclists gathered south of Atlanta on a beautiful day to raise money for multiple sclerosis.

Davis, a fit 51-year-old mother of five from Dunwoody, jumped on her road bike and headed off on a 100-mile trek. As time passed, riders separated to their own speeds and Davis and a fellow named Brad Debold found themselves alone, traversing a two-lane road northwest of Newnan.

About halfway through the long course, an old red pickup with a piece of furniture in the back passed them and then seemingly stalled out at a four-way stop. The man driving the truck got out, causing Debold to note to Davis that the dude must be having engine trouble.

A mile later, with Davis pedaling in front, the two heard a loud muffler. She glimpsed the red pickup truck slowing next to them. Suddenly, they were riding in the midst of a thick, blinding white cloud of smoke. The driver did a good job of pacing them — they were clipping along at 15 mph and breathing hard — so Davis got caught sucking in some of the cloud pouring from the passenger’s window.

And then the truck was gone.

“Immediately my lungs are burning, my eyes are burning, my throat is burning,” Davis recalls. “We’re in the middle of a huge white cloud and I can’t see. I’m trying not to wreck.”

After clearing out her eyes with eyewash and regaining her breath, the two continued on to find a fire extinguisher laying in the road. The main ingredient, monoammonium phosphate, is not acutely toxic but causes eye and lung irritations, especially when you’re sucking in air on a bike and the chemical is being sprayed into your face.

Davis is now on an inhaler for sore lungs.

The bicyclists did not report the incident to the cops. They were in the middle of nowhere, didn’t get a good look at the truck and were by themselves.

I asked Davis what might have set off the goof in the truck. Often, drivers get mad at bicyclists puttering along a thoroughfare as the two modes of transportation compete for limited asphalt. But that wasn't the case here. This was the boonies, there was plenty of room to pass and they had no interaction with the truck.

“On a bike, people like to skim right by you almost because you made them wait,” she said. “They’re trying to show you, ‘You’re in my space.’ But we were out there with hardly anything around. There was no inconvenience, no traffic. We were out in the county!”

I called Ken Rosskopf and Bruce Hagen, two Decatur lawyers who handle lots of bicycle cases. They get perhaps three calls a week from bicyclists who feel they’ve been wronged or who have crashed.

“It seems to be people are quick to anger,” Rosskopf said. “We’re all stressed out trying to get somewhere in a limited amount of time.”

The two have seen it all — motorists throwing items from cars, screaming at bicyclists, “curbing” them or getting out to commit physical mayhem.

One not uncommon method of street punishment, Rosskopf said, is for motorists to zoom ahead of the cyclists and then to jump on their brakes.

But a fire extinguisher blast? That’s new to both of them.

All kinds of people get involved in such incidents, including cops. The lawyers handled the case of a bicyclist thumped by an off-duty officer in Midtown. The cop chased down the cyclist and beat the snot out of him. The officer, who claimed the bicyclist screamed obscenities at him, was charged with four felonies but escaped with a stern talking-to and paying restitution.

Hagen said he thinks the reason motorists get angry is that being in a car isolates and depersonalizes humans.

And, he added, “I think there’s a resentment thing.” Drivers resent bikers being free of clogged traffic and they resent “their lifestyle.”

He didn’t say it, but I guess he means motorists think the bicyclists look better than they do in Spandex.

Hagen recently gave a talk to a bicycling group about what to do when confronted with aggressive drivers. The short answer: Keep your head down and keep pedaling.

Middle fingers aren’t a good idea, even though they often feel so good.