Using Assertiveness in Traffic Disputes
A cyclist wrote: I
was riding once into Princeton, NJ, on a wide two lane road with a really
crappy shoulder -- glass, broken gravel, road litter. I was out into
the road a little to avoid all the evil tire eating stuff but not out far
enough to impede a car in any way. Soon it came to pass that a car
pulled up behind me on a stretch of the road where there was a broken yellow
line, and about a half mile visibility ahead -- ya know, as in pass me
with no problem. But nooooo, the SOB simply leaned on his horn, and
leaned and leaned and actually leaned out the window and yelled at me to
move over (into the glass and tire eating trash). I waved him around
but nooo, he was having none if it and leaned on his horn s'more.
Well, I broke down and gave him the fickle finger of fate, which evidently
irritated him to such an extent that he brushed past me, and I swear he
picked some hair off my ankle. Thinking the incident was over, I
rode on into town and there on the side of the road was the evil doer talking
with a cop. As I rode by them, I heard the #@$%!
exclaim "there he is officer!" Whereupon, the cop jumped in his 4000
pound conveyance and came after me with lights flashing and gumball machine
in full light show. He pulled in front of me and essentially pulled
me over like I was in a car, whereupon he proceeded to tell me that I had
broken some statute or other -- something about "inciting to harass,"
and he was going to impound my bike and "take me in." I remained
calm thinking this had to be a joke (it sure was to me!!) but the policeperson
was serious. He asked me for my drivers license. I didn't happen
to have it on me (I was after all riding my bike), which got him
really angry, saying that was another law I'd broken. Gees, this
was getting rediculouser and rediculouser. Well I gave him my name
and address -- both fictitious -- and he said I could expect a summons
in the mail. I never rode in Princeton again -- moved to North Carolina,
This is a very
good story. You made some mistakes, so it can be a lesson to newbies, but
at the same time, you were the innocent party and did not deserve such
First, the law
does not require you to ride on the shoulder, and I always avoid broken
glass and other hazards. Second, the motorist had a clear lane, so
he had absolutely no reason to harass you. Third, he nearly hit you
with his car which is reckless endangerment. Fourth, you had no legal
obligation to have a driver's license. So, in all these things, you
were clearly in the right, as you well know.
However, you gave
the fellow the finger and you were defensive with the policeman, which
hurt your case. I'm not being judgmental here, I wasn't there, and
I might have lost my cool also. You should have headed towards the
policeman the minute you saw him. Your attitude towards him should
have been friendly, positive, and assertive, and you should have said,
"Officer, I'm so glad you're here. This man is guilty of reckless
endangerment." Then go ahead and tell exactly what happened without
exaggeration and without being in the least defensive. At the very
least, you will show the motorist that you don't back down easily and that
you're not afraid of him. The motorist is not going to want to have
to visit court to testify, and you can make sure that there is a question
about his part in the affair. In addition, you will be showing the
officer a different view of what happened. If you are objective,
logical, and unbiased, the officer is likely to believe you over a hot-headed
motorist who just finished telling a wild story. But even if he doesn't
believe you, he will recognize that your conflict is one person's word
I was in a situation
with many of the same features back in 1965, when no one in Alabama except
me seemed to know I had a right to use the road. I was traveling
down the highway, which had two ten-foot wide lanes back then (right now
the same road is 60 feet wide and is much less safe for cycling when it
has the same amount of traffic), at about 25 mph on my 3-speed (I had a
good tail wind). A car came up behind me and had to wait while some
cars passed me going the other way. The driver pulled up alongside
me after they passed and began to lecture me on how to ride a bicycle.
Several cars passed while he was talking. I noticed that he had one
of those flashing lights -- the kind you can place on the car roof in an
emergency -- on his dash, so I figured he must be police or, more likely,
volunteer rescue or something. I tried to explain, but he got mad
and moved towards me, pushing me off the road and onto loose gravel.
I barely avoided a nasty spill. I got back on the bike and proceeded
to town where a police car was waiting for me. I never gave the officer
a chance to open his mouth. "Officer," I said, "I was run off the road
back there by a man who then came into town. Do you know anything
about it?" He told me the man had complained that I had been blocking
the road. I then asked him, "Do you know the name of the man?
I want to press charges against him!" I told him exactly what happened,
and I said I had done nothing illegal or unreasonable while that fellow
had deliberately run me off the road into deep gravel where I could have
been severely injured. I asked him again to identify the man, and
said, "I'm sure you know who he was, as he had some kind of emergency light
on his dash." The officer left without any mention of my driver's
license or without any criticism of my behavior. Of course, he might
have been a lot more reasonable than your officer was. Some people,
you just can't talk to. You might have gotten two bad ones in a row.
But being assertive will give you a better chance than trying to ignore
During the same
period of time while I was riding on another highway, a tractor-trailer
came up behind me at the same time as a car was approaching from the other
direction, causing the driver of the rig to slow down pretty abruptly.
As soon as the car had passed, he passed me and then slammed on his brakes,
leaving huge skid marks up the road. He jumped out of the cab, and
I stopped to talk to him. He loudly accused me of causing him to
nearly wreck, pointed to his skid marks as proof, and asked me how much
I thought loosing that much rubber cost him. I treated him
with respect, but I did not yield an inch. I pointed out that I had
a legal right to use the road, that he had had time to slow down without
endangering anyone, and that he skidded his tires only after passing me.
I was not sure what his reaction would be, but he ended up agreeing with
me, to my relief. While being assertive did not cause him to agree
with me, any other behavior would have prevented him from doing so.
By the way, I have
a funny story about showing my license that shows another side of assertiveness.
This happened about ten years later in the same town. I was renting
a low-cost house in the Mill Village (factory workers' homes). I
was coming back from seeing friends late at night and the street was pitch
black. Suddenly, a park car's lights blinded me. I was forced
to dismount and walk toward my house. Then the car approached with
two policemen in it. "What are you doing out after curfew?" they
demanded. "I don't know anything about a curfew; I'm on my way back
home," I said. They said, "Don't you know this whole area is under
curfew; no one is allowed to be out at night!" I said, "That's ridiculous;
I live in America; I have the right to go wherever and whenever I please."
"Show us some identification!" they demanded. I had to think fast.
I did not want to go to jail over some stupid law. They hadn't asked
for my driver's license because of a new law about such requests and because
I hadn't been driving a car. I had been teaching at the local university
part-time, so I gave them my faculty identification card! Their offensive
behavior suddenly became very polite, "Excuse us for bothering you, Sir!
We won't do it again, Sir!" Of course, I was lucky that time.
By the way, before leaving, they acknowledged that the only reason they
stopped me was that I was on a bicycle -- if I had been in car, they would
have left me alone.
can help even with a real jerk. I was stopped at a red light, unfortunately,
too near the edge of the road (the light caught me by surprise).
A car pulled up alongside me, meaning I would have to let him go first.
A passenger in the back seat pushed the upper part of his body out of the
window, grabbed me by the neck, and almost lifted me off of the bicycle.
His neck was thick, his bare chest and arms were heavy with muscles, and
his breath was reeking from alcohol. I could hardly speak, but I
remained very calm. I said in a horse whisper, "I wouldn't do that
if I were you." "Why not?" he asked. "You never know," I said
very calmly, "I'm old enough that I could have been in Vietnam."
He carefully lowered me back onto my seat, slid back into the vehicle,
and they drove off. I never have seen him again. Notice that
I made no threat, and I told no lie. I was actually giving him very
good advice which I hope he will remember. Some little guys can be
very dangerous. (I'm not one of them, and I wasn't in Vietnam).
As gamblers know,
putting a good face on things is better than four aces. It also doesn't
hurt if you keep your wits and can pull a joker out of your sleeve as well.
But, most important to your defense is to keep control of your emotions,
both fear and anger. Police will assume that you are guilty if you
act defensive in any way. One co-worker was at a store when it was
being robbed, so he ran away, and the police shot and killed him.
At another time, I accepted a short ride to a store for a soft drink with
a fellow who used drugs. We had just pulled in when a dozen police
arrived, aiming their guns with both hands. The people leaving the
store threw themselves on the ground, groceries and all. My "friend"
was wild-eyed. "What do we do!" he cried. "You sit there cool
as a cucumber and still as a statue; don't say a word or do a thing," I
answered. So, we watched the police get their man from ringside seats
while the police ignored our van. Of course, I vowed to never again
risk riding in the vehicle of a drug user. The police tend to judge
people by first impressions. As an extreme example, one dark night,
I was arriving at school to teach a class when I rode through a police
cordon. One of the officers called out to me, "Kid, you better get
out of here on that bike; there's a convict hiding around here."
He had dismissed the idea of my being the convict simply because of my
method of travel and had evidently reduced my age by 30 years.
Be sure to be polite,
without being excessively polite, and friendly, without trying to be a
pal. I do not call the police "sir," but I do call them "officer."
I treat them with respect, but as public servants, not as authorities over
me. I am cooperative without being submissive. Never show fear,
distaste, or any unpleasant emotion. Be careful of venting unattached
emotions, the officer might think a #@$%!
to him. If you are angry, it's OK to say that you are angry, but
its very bad to sound angry. Restraining your emotions gathers respect
and avoids creating anger. When the police have stopped me, I have
always begun by asking, "What was I doing wrong?" If I disagreed,
I did so through another question, "What was wrong with that?" or "What
should I have done differently?" It's easy to disagree without arguing
and in a way that furnishes more information. I am fortunate, however,
in having only one police officer harass me on a bicycle trip (1966, Keokuk).
He accused me of stealing corn from the fields and a lot of other malarkey
and built up to the threat of "taking me in," but I think he was surprised
to find that that's exactly what I wanted him to do. When I began
to insist that he take me to the police station, he decided that it was
time to leave. Most of the police who have stopped me just wanted
to be friendly, and I'm always pleased to have an opportunity to chat about
my trip. The police have also been good about helping me find a place
to camp for the night.
motorists just a politely as you treat the police, even if they don't deserve
it. I was traveling down the road on my bike when a car drove by
and the people in the car yelled threats at me. Normally, such cars
disappear into the distance, but this time the driver pulled in at a house
up ahead. I pulled in also, not because I wanted to, but because
riding past would have been telling them that it was OK for them to harass
me in the future. They waited for me to react, and I looked them
right in their faces and explained that the law gave me the same right
to travel on the road as it gave them and that harassing me on the road
was against the law. Then I thanked them for listening to me and
left. They never bothered me again. I use the same method with
people whose dogs have been harassing me.
I have also been guilty on one occasion of reacting in
the wrong way, and I saw the results of that. In the early 70's,
a car came by with the occupants swerving and yelling at me, and I gave
them the finger. That caused them to come back. After coping
with some further assaults with the car, I faced six large fellows, all
ready to beat me to a pulp, and all that saved me was a homeowner who appeared
with a rifle and announced that he had already called the police.
Their behavior was not justifiable in any event, but I shouldn't have encouraged
them to respond.
I have never had problems with being assertive on the road, I have myself
acting less assertively in other circumstances, so I can sympathize with
someone who finds these situations difficult. A book that helped
me is Manuel J. Smith's When I Say No I Feel Guilty. It gives
some techniques for dealing with criticism and stating your point of view.
For some strange reason, Smith says assertiveness should not be used with
bosses and police, but that is the time when assertiveness (and not passiveness
or aggressiveness) is most important. Another excellent book is PET
(Parent Effectiveness Training) by Thomas Gordon which looks at negotiating
problems without the "you" messages that get other people angry.
In addition, the book makes a clear distinction between passive, aggressive,
and assertive behavior.