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Street Strategies: Aggressive drivers

Thursday, September 28, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Tom Pemberton #11034
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A discussion on the Washington Motorcycle Safety Program Facebook page brought to mind the question of how we, as motorcyclists, deal with aggressive drivers without ourselves becoming dangerous aggressive riders in turn. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) defines an aggressive driver as when "an individual commits a combination of moving traffic offenses so as to endanger other persons or property." What are the signs we should look for in other road users indicating an aggressive driver or case of road rage?

First, in teaching beginner classes the point is often made that road rage does not belong on a motorcycle. If you succumb to road rage, get off the road and off your bike. Because of the risks we accept to ride our bikes, we cannot afford to allow ourselves to succumb to road rage. We do not have the metal, plastic, impact zones, seat belts, airbags, etc. that cars have. We only have our riding gear.

According to the Washington State Patrol website, the signs of road rage or aggressive driving include:

  • Aggressive Driving & Road Rage Symptoms
    • Mentally condemning or thought of violence toward other drivers
    • Verbally expressing condemnation of other drivers to passengers in your vehicle
    • Not obeying traffic safety rules because you don't agree with them
  • Engage in aggressive and risky driving:
    • Following too close
    • Speeding
    • Weaving in and out of traffic
    • Speeding up to beat a traffic light
    • Cutting between vehicles to change lanes
    • Using the horn excessively
    • Flashing headlights excessively at oncoming traffic
    • Braking to get others to back off your bumper
    • Passing another driver, then slowing to teach them a lesson

We are vulnerable, as we do not have a cage around us. We are practically invisible to other road users, because we are smaller than most of the other vehicles. In addition, we must constantly be aware of our lack of stability, because we have to put our foot down when we come to a stop. Because of the limitations of motorcycles, we are at more risk from aggressive drivers. How do we deal with an aggressive driver, and what steps can we take to avoid that driver out there suffering from road rage?

The first step is to use good search strategies, watching ahead, behind and around you for these dangerous drivers. You want to see them before they see you. The MSF uses the SEE strategy1 of Search, Evaluate, and Execute to teach riding safely. They use a two-second following distance, four-second immediate path and 12-second anticipated path rule to identify, plan and execute hazard avoidance. TEAM OREGON uses a 20-second rule of scanning ahead to detect hazards or traps. Whichever strategy you use, the idea is to identify those vehicles or situations that will endanger you before they actually endanger you. First and foremost, we need to use situational awareness of all that is happening around us as we ride. This includes checking those rearview mirrors.

Once we are searching for aggressive drivers, we have to have techniques and strategies to identify and avoid them. One of the clues we can use is identifying vehicles moving faster than the rest of the traffic, especially if they are cutting in and out of traffic. Another would be a car that is moving erratically within its lane - which might be a distracted or impatient driver - or a car that tailgates other vehicles.

Sometimes aggressive drivers move slower than the rest of the traffic and resist moving out of the left lane. Someone who thinks that because they are moving at a slower speed than traffic, they have a right to camp in the left lane can be classified as an aggressive driver. Impeding traffic flow is against the law (Example: RCW 46.61.100 (2) Upon all roadways having two or more lanes for traffic moving in the same direction, all vehicles shall be driven in the right-hand lane then available for traffic.) Not obeying traffic safety rules because you don't agree with them is a form of aggressive driving.

Whatever the case, we need to be watching and evaluating the other road users at all times. Once you have identified a potential aggressive driver, you need to evaluate and predict what they MAY do. You really cannot actually predict what they WILL do, and that is the real problem. Once we have evaluated the situation, we need to PLAN the execution of our escape plan.

Generally, we have three options open to us: change our position, change our speed, and/or signal our intentions. If you can safely do it, put the hazard behind you. If you can’t, the best option may be to simply get off the road and continue riding away from that aggressive driver. Per the Hurt Study (1981), finding number 17 says "...more than three-fourths of all accident hazards are within [45 degrees] of either side of straight ahead."

Watching ahead is key to avoiding aggressive drivers, but one other type of aggressive driving does come from behind: tailgaters. The MSF teaches1 the following steps to handle tailgaters: "flash your brake lights, gradually reduce speed to create more space in front, maintain a lane position that discourages sharing the lane, or change lanes, and (if this doesn’t work) turn at the next opportunity, into a street or parking lot, to allow the person tailgating you to pass by." With an aggressive driver, this method of handling tailgaters may have flaws. Often the method works with people who are simply not aware of how close they are to you. However, a truly aggressive driver may take your actions as a challenge.

This has happened to me. I was on the freeway at five in the morning, going to work. The person following me was intent on harassing a motorcycle; they must have thought it was cool to tailgate a motorcycle when the road was literally empty of all other vehicles. Following the steps above, I finally slowed to 25 mph in the far right lane before the person passed me. As I began to pick my speed up again, they slowed and pulled in behind me, and once again started to tailgate me. Again, I flashed my brakes, slowed down to 15 mph in the far right lane (this on a four lane freeway) and finally pulled off to the shoulder. As the vehicle passed, I saw it was some young man in a BMW car! He must have thought it was funny to harass a motorcyclist.

The lesson here is, 1) follow the method; 2) don’t become angry or aggressive yourself; 3) get out of the way of aggressive drivers. As some would suggest, I should have sped up to get away from this driver, but I think that would have meant he would have been tailgating me at a higher speed.


1. The MSF may no longer teach the identified strategies. [return]

Originally published in BMW Owners News in September 2013.


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