Dealing With Aggressive Drivers

Arlingtonians generally share the road pretty well – but what to do when they don't?

Early Sunday morning, I and a thousand other cyclists were on our way to participate in the Crystal Ride in Crystal City. Naturally, this involved a few bikes being on the road. I rolled onto 23rd Street in Crystal City and joined a number of cyclists waiting for the light to change so we could cross Jefferson Davis Highway. There were five to eight cyclists (including children) who were waiting immediately behind a van that was, in turn, waiting to turn right at the light. Pointing at these cyclists was an SUV with a driver who wanted to exit from the parking lot next to the road. Apparently, he couldn't stand the fact that there were cyclists in front of him - so he decided to get on his horn. You know, because that one piece of the road was his, not theirs. So the cyclists shuffled forward a bit, and he gunned his engine a bit. More horn, of course, and then he gunned it again after he'd pushed out part of the way into the lane.

As this was playing out, I rolled over and gave him a "chill" motion – waving my hands down, hoping he'd just wait a short bit. He, in turn, offered his own response that indicated something other than patience -- to which I responded with words and a gesture that was decidedly not chill. Good thing for both of us, I suppose, that the light soon turned green with a clear path (the cyclists in front having just moved) and he sped away.

So, yeah, that's how not to deal with an aggressive motorist.   

What follows is the best advice I can give for dealing with a plainly aggressive driver (and I do the best job I can of taking it for myself):

  1. Don't escalate the situation or confront the driver. Keep your cool and get out of the way. Dead or injured is never better than being right.
  2. Note the plate and a description of the driver. Cars cannot be charged – drivers can. I'm pretty quick with my phone camera these days. If it's a bus, get the bus number.
  3. Note your location and the direction the driver is heading in.
  4. Get away from the situation and call the police. I prefer to use the non-emergency number (703-558-2222 in Arlington), but if the driver is still threatening you (or continuing with others), use 911.

What happens when you call the police? The last time I called in an aggressive driver in Arlington, the operator not only tried to identify the car from the partial plate I was able to recall, but she asked me to email her the photo I took so she could be sure. She figured it out, and told me that they'd send a letter to the owner telling them that they'd been reported for aggressive driving. While getting a letter like that won't necessarily deter future aggressive behavior, I imagine that it often leads to useful introspection. I know of at least one case in Maryland where the same car has been the subject of a number of complaints, and that resulted in a personal visit to the driver's house by local police officers.

Many cyclists are tempted to just dismiss these incidents and carry on without reporting it. However, by reporting these incidents, you not only help educate the driver in question, but it may also be useful to a future, less fortunate, victim of aggressive driving. I'm convinced the case against Dr. Christopher Thompson's horrific assault [warning: harsh photo at that link] on a couple of cyclists only went forward because the police had a record of previously reported aggressive driving by Thompson. Had there been no record, I expect Thompson would still be a menace on the streets, instead of getting convicted and going to jail for mayhem and assault. Let's make sure it never has a chance to go that far in Arlington.


Information on aggressive driving and how to report it in our local jurisdictions is here.

Report those Metro buses, too.

Here's a recent story of a driver who decided it would be funny to assault a DC cyclist – and picked the wrong target. I'll do my best to support her in court on Aug. 19.


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