Cyclist Self-Defense

This is a topic that I've been thinking about a lot the past few days. I hope it spurs people to respond in the comments because that really is its intent.

Lately, as we've seen more and more people on the streets biking, we've also seen more and more reports of motorist/cyclist altercations. Now I'm not talking just in Columbus, but nationwide. Bike commuting here is still beneath the radar to an extent that it doesn't happen as much (though it certainly DOES happen). But here are some examples:

Biking in Halifax, Nova Scotia: Truck driver flicks cigarette ash at cyclist and tries to bump him off the road. SUV driver was frustrated that cyclist wouldn't share the road, whatever that means.

Just yesterday, I was talking to a recreational cyclist and I asked her why she doesn't bike to work if she loves it so much (as she'd JUST finished saying how much she loves her bike). She responded with safety concerns, including reports she'd heard of an individual attacking lone women on bikes on the Olentangy River Trail.

And back in early July, I got this email from a reader:
I saw your biking blog and thought I'd shoot you an e-mail.

Some guy with major road rage here in Columbus, confronted my boyfriend and I today, then purposely ran my boyfriend over with his SUV and asked him if he wanted more.
My boyfriend is okay and the guy was charged with assault with a vehicle, but with your knowledge of riding in Columbus, do you know of any lawyer which might be local and passionate about the rights of bikers??
I referred the reader to Steven Magas of Cincinnati, who I've conversed with off and on about some issues regarding bike law.

But the main issue I want to bring up here is how the heck do we, as cyclists, defend ourselves against attackers, either car-borne or on foot?

Now, a quick aside: let me explain to you my personal views on self-defense: views that the law may or may not have in common. If someone attacks me, or I feel that I'm in danger, then I have the right to take whatever action is necessary to get myself out of danger and to make sure that particular danger won't affect me again. For example: if you break into my house, and I can manage it, you'll be knocked unconscious or have a limb broken at least - to end the danger to me and my family.

Back to the topic at hand: I've heard a couple of interesting ideas that I'm not sure how I feel about. Well, that's not entirely true. One of my readers has told me about how he carries a pretty serious knife and will use it to slash the tires of vehicles who try to rough him up. And if a cyclist gets to the point where he feels threatened enough to do this, then I'm personally all for it. It's not like he's slashing the driver himself and taking off, he's taking away the driver's ability to do him harm. Tires can be replaced, people can't.

Now here's a second point of view, that I'm not sure I share at all. This was proposed by CycleDog down in Oklahoma a few months ago: cyclists should carry firearms. You have to think that a motorist bearing down on you and seeing a holster on you is going to think twice about bothering you. And it's absolutely true that guns can be a deterrent.

But do we want to risk turning our streets into armed battlegrounds? Because you can be sure that some redneck in a pickup is going to want to drive you off the road sometime, and when you draw on him he's going to draw right back.

Plus, do you want the possible danger of the gun going off after a fall, or what have you?

Now here's another idea: keeping your u-lock within reach of your riding position. If you have a serious u-lock, you know how heavy they can be. Grabbing that thing by the u-shaped portion and swinging it, you would most certainly be a deterrent. And this might be the best way possible to ward off anyone attacking you while riding - just reach down, grab the u-lock, and swing away.

It's an absolute shame that this topic has to be discussed, but the increase in the number of cyclists on our road-rage infested streets is going to result in more road rage before it results in less, and I think it behooves us to be prepared.

So... what are your thoughts here? Any ideas for personal defense on a bike?


  1. It's very rare to see confrontations between bikes and motorists in my area. I have never seen, read or heard of any.

    The "redneck" thing doesn't cut it around here. Trucks displaying the confederate flag can coun't on being vandalized. The younger guys in my office have said that it's considered the flag of insurgents, traitors and racists of the 1950's south.

    My point is that it's the rednecks on the defensive and not pedestrians or bike riders. That's a refreshing change of pace from things I have read on bike blogs. I'm confident it's because this is a very liberal/progressive part of the country. Pickups and Hummers are really scorned.

  2. How to defend yourself on a bike has always wandered through my mind since you bike to work. My first belief is that take action that You, yourself feel comfortable with... ulocks, banging on the car and others you mentioned.

    A police friend of mine once said the bike patrolmen would carry the white shoe polish in an easily reached place. So you can mark the car. If it is not cleaned up in a timely manner it will destroy the paint. However you would be able to see repeat offenders to bicyclists easily..

  3. That goes right along with the idea I've mentioned of all drivers being equipped with paintball guns. The idea would be that all drivers would fire paintballs at the cars that pissed them off the most. At the end of the month, the drivers of the cars with the most paint on them would be taken off the road until they could control themselves.

  4. I've been commuting by bike in the city of Chicago for a little over seven years and have never been involved in a serious altercation with a car. There have been drivers who cut me off because they never saw me, and a few cabbies have seen me and still cut me off, but no out right aggression from any cars. However there are plenty of examples of drivers being aggressive to cyclists.
    This link will tell you about an incredibly brutal example.

    Some of the things you list seem to suggest that confrontation is the answer. I would advise against it. Some people in our society seem to be barely on the threshold of sanity, and confrontation might just tip them over the edge. The cyclist in the above link started the yelling (That doesn't excuse the driver's bloody reaction).

    You discussed carrying firearms. I think that would be like bringing a toothpick to a knife fight. Automobiles are much deadlier weapons than handguns. Just look at the number of people killed each year by automobiles. The number is staggeringly close to the number of soldiers we lost in ten years of Vietnam. Think how outraged the nation is over the loss of our soldiers. Hand guns and firearms are nothing compared to the killing power of the automobile. Carrying a gun wouldn't do much good.

    My first suggestion for part of the solution is to examine alternate routes. I've found that many people try to commute by bike along the route they would drive there car, and my experience is this is not the best way. I have found that some streets I try to always avoid when driving turn out to be pretty good for biking. These tend to be minor thoroughfares that have only one lane in each direction. You have to be careful for doors of parked cars swinging open, but cars tend to drive more slowly in these one lane streets because every time someone makes a left turn, traffic behind them is held up waiting for the way to clear. The drivers on these streets tend to drive cautiosly because car traffic is so stop and go. Bike commuters benefit from the added driver caution

    My second suggestion is make sure you stay alert and are visible. Use lights and bright colored clothing pay attention to the flow of traffic. I used to have a co-worker who commuted by bike. He seemed to get hit by cars once or twice a year. He always wore headphones, and was pretty much an air head. If someone has trouble focusing, I would suggest mass transit. They'll get themselves killed on a bike, or probably run over a pack of toddlers in day-care if they drive. If you can't pay attention don't operate heavy machinery.

    Finally I seem to get a positive response from some drivers because of some t-shirts I wear. The "this bike uses no foreign oil" seems to be the most popular. The "one less jerk in a car" is also popular. These t-shirts do seem to piss off the yuppies in SUV's. Around here only yuppies drive SUV's and they seem to think I'm insulting them. I don't wear lycra and I ride a bike I got back in 1985 instead of some $1,000.00 plus bike so they know I'm not one of them. I figure they drink so much starbuck's they are probably part of that group of people who are barely holding on the edge of sanity.

    No strategy is 100% good, but I think that bike commuting should open up some alternate routes to getting where you need to go. If you aren't having fun and you are in danger even trying different things, I would suggest going back to the car, but let your local politicians know about the problem. Encouraging bike commuting is a great way for local governments to lower the cost of road maintenance and relieve congestion. They'll be helping America lower its dependence on imported oil as well.

    I really like the paintball idea. Can I try to get corporate America to adopt that in the workplace? Just fire the people with the most hits each month. That's a 'downsizing' policy I can back!

  5. Sean, thanks for your comments. I agree - avoidance is the best means to staying safe. And I think I've made that clear in my many posts.

    This post was more of a "how to handle things if it comes right down to it" post. As much as we try to stay safe and sound, out of harm's way, sometimes harm is going to come looking for us. That was the jist of pointing out the recent posts on other blogs about being attacked by drivers and the like.

    If you go looking for trouble, you're certainly going to find it. But as the many stories coming out about cyclists versus road-raging motorists show, sometimes it's going to come looking for you. My point is: be ready.

  6. What I wrote about carrying firearms was partly tongue-in-cheek. Weapons are ALWAYS the last resort when all other alternatives have been exhausted. One universal caveat about the use of a firearm is that you have to be actively threatened before its use is justified. In other words, if someone has thrown a beer can past your head and then drives off, you cannot take a shot at him. If he stops and gets out of his car, the judge will want to know why you simply didn't ride away. There's a HUGE responsibility that comes along with weapons. In OK, we have to attend a concealed weapons training course before applying for a license. It's very advantageous to know the law.

    Fortunately, the truly malicious drivers are rare. Still, we all encounter one now and then. In those instances, you can put the superior maneuverability of a bicycle to good use. If traffic permits, do a quick U-turn. Ride between two parked cars, or jump a curb. If someone is foolish enough to chase after you on foot, double back and steal his keys.

  7. Absolutely, Ed. As I said in an earlier comment (and I think implied in the post) taking such measures should be the last resort. I don't want to hurt anyone and I really would rather not get hurt myself, so physical confrontations are going to be the last thing I want to do.

    But I am a firm believer that one needs to be ready for anything that comes our way, and if that means physically protecting my person, then I'm going to be ready to do that. And given the violence that some people try to perpetuate on cyclists, I think it behooves people to be prepared for the worst.

  8. A lot of good things being said here. Thanks a bunch to sean for a well thought out and level head on the avoidence tip.
    That being said... I keep a police whistle around my neck, keys on my belt loop (u-lock key aound my wrist for quick access), SPD clips on my shoes, and a mini u-lock in my back pocket.
    The whistle as been useful for getting attention of drivers as well as assistance in the couple of times I have been hit.
    The keys and SPDs have been good for leaving a "reminder" in a paint-job or two that the motorist has just come WAY TOO CLOSE to me.
    The u-lock has been held in the air a few times to convey that I am not willing to back down from my rights to the road, and has once been used to take off the mirror of someone who obviously was not using it anyway as he had cut me off three seperate times with in a three mile stretch of road. He would cut me off to zoom ahead, I would catch and pass himm as the was stopped at a light (I was not running the reds, bikes are just narrower), the light would change and he would do it again. I tried getting his attetion at the second light, but he just gave me the finger. So after the third incident, I took off his passenger side mirror on my way by, and went on my merry little way down some back streets so he wouldnt follow me.

  9. i have a basket on the back of my bike and i always joke with my girlfriend that i should put rocks in it, so that everytime i nearly die, i just take one out of the back and break the windshield, side windows, or rear windows of the cars that piss me off.

    too many motorists are bullies and they don't care if they kill people, i think it's more than fair to say we are armed as well.

  10. Though I certainly don't blame you, there's certainly a big difference between self-defense and revenge. This is particularly true in the legal area. Defending yourself because you're in danger of loss of life and/or limb is one thing, throwing rocks at a car because it nearly drove you off the road is another.

    A better tact: get their license number and call the police on them. If we all start doing this, we can slowly build up awareness of the problem in the police department.

  11. A minor correction - it was the passenger that flicked their ash at me, not the driver.

    Something a friend suggested to me that was interesting was carrying a travel-sized can of shaving gel. The canister has enough force to propel the gel onto the windscreen, the driver will have to use windscreen wipers to wipe it off, this will then smear, forcing the driver to stop to clean it off. I'm not sure how this would work from a legal point of view, though!

  12. Steve - I like it and I also see your point. You could be charged with a creating a real road hazard or reckless endangerment or something like that. You never know how drivers are going to react to such things: whether they'll speed up accidentally; lose control and freak out; or what.

  13. The last time I had a run-in with a pissy motorists, I called the cops when I arrived at work -- the non-emergency number. They wouldn't listen to me and said I needed to call 911. I called 911 and they wouldn't listen and said they'd send a cop out to me. When the cop arrived 2 hours later, I tried to tell her the license number, but she wasn't interested. She said it could be anybody in that car and that if I didn't know who it was driving there was nothing they could do.

    With cops like these, who needs criminals?

  14. Thanks, Crack. It's a shame that you handled the situation correctly and the police still wouldn't help you.

    As I think about the problem more, I'm coming more and more to the conclusion that the situation for cyclists, motorists, etc. would be much better if the police would actually do their jobs and enforce the traffic code as it is written.

  15. I do most of my riding at night here is Silicon Valley. I found that most of my close calls come on Saturday night for whatever reason I don't know. I wear a knife on my side that can be seen and sometime I have mace on me but I have never had to use them. On one night a dog decided to attack me. He came out between two parked cars and I did not see him until he was right on top of me. My first reaction was to look down at him and that stopped him dead in his tracks thanks to my bright head lamp. Sometimes I come across the strangest people hanging out on the trails late at night and that helps me keep my speed BTW I started to carry the mace because the skunks were getting too close when I'm on the creek side trails. I think it wise to carry some form of protection which can be as simple as a bright light or a whistle. If it gets to the point where you have to mount twin 50's to your handle bars then were all in trouble. The other thing that tends to make people leave you alone is I wear a face mask like a ninja or a swat team guy would wear. This really has a psychological effect on people so beware. I take it off before I walk into 7eleven.

  16. I've read many comments from people about their ridiculous choices for defense. Guns? No way. You'll simply end up in jail for years and years regardless.
    I carry and HAVE USED TWICE police issue pepper spray. I keep the canister blue taped to my toptube because blue tape is easy to rip and makes the cannister instantly accessible.
    There is no way I'm going to get close enough to use my U-lock or baton or whatever because 1.) If a cop comes, I'll end up in jail for aggravated assault 2.) The correct pepper spray is totally unexpeted because you are still 10 feet from the guy and he's thinking about beating you in person.
    Both times someone almost killed me with their car. One guy pulled ahead, got out and I nailed him in the face as he came towards me. It is important to purchase the correct spray that is from a SEVERAL OUNCE cannister and is termed "OC". The other important issue is not to get a spray but a STREAM type of cannister. The stream cans can go up to 15 or 20 feet . I know, both times I watched the macho idiot grab their faces and yell, completely blinded and in LOTS of pain. If I was really a nutjob, I could have beat them down but both times shakily got on my bike and pedalled away. There is a brand of pepper spray called "OFF DUTY" it is so strong it's not legal for police to carry it but it's used alot by skip tracers etc.

  17. Pepper spray seems to be a great option. Easy to handle, compact, and as you say, it can be used before the attacker can get near you.

    My only question is how easily available is it? I really haven't ever shopped for pepper spray...

  18. Rocks and U-locks may work for a wake up call to the road rager--only if you can get away. By the time the road rager hears the "bang" or "clunk," he may think he hit you and try to take off. But when he sees you are still upright, then he will try for serious vengeance. This is where you need to escape--very quickly.

    Even here in Minneapolis, things have changed too, and there is a lot more hostility--but if you keep alert, cool and calm, and not look like a victim, you'll probably be ok.
    I have seen open carry--and it might work very well as a deterrent, but it also makes you look nuts. The visible holster hanging down will make most road ragers opt for a softer target.
    But do you want that displayed in a nice neighborhood? Going past a school? It's a tough balance.

  19. I've had the same type of car on the same stretch of street at the same time of night twice try "playing chicken" by pulling into my lane as close as he can (oncoming). That got me thinking about cyclist self-defense.
    The second time I could tell by the way the car (same driver?) was positioning itself, so I stopped pedaling ahead of time, braced myself for a spill, and tried a well-placed kick to the driver's-side mirror.
    The guy had clearly spent all the rent he saves by living in his mom's basement on this car, and I thought he'd feel worse about the mirror than if he'd actually hit a cyclist.
    Sadly, it was not a well-placed kick, a complete miss actually, but I'm sure it looked pretty psycho.
    Am seriously considering the white shoe polish as a much safer alternative should it happen again, and admire groups like Critical Mass for bringing the cyclists plight to public attention.

  20. I was riding on a trail tonight and as I came upon the last major street before the end of the trail, I saw that there was someone off to the side of the trail, I thought I saw reflectors from his bike, which was stationary. It was completely dark so anyone without the powerful lithium lights that I utilize on my bike would not have seen the very large branch that was very purposely placed accross the trail. It stretched from one edge of the trail to the other. As I passed him, he made a strange sneering sound, possibly my lights upset his plans. His roadblock was just a few yards ahead and I took it in just in time, braked, and picked a cautious maneuver around the end of the branch. Luckily, at this point in the trail, there wasn't a drop off or ravine. Not certain what his intentions were but anyone hitting this large branch, young tree trunk possibly, at full tilt would very likely have been thrown and severely injured. unfortunately, I did not have my Cell phone but came upon a McDonalds less than 5 minutes after passing this man and his trap. I asked the manager to call the police, she said she would, I stuck around the area but no police showed up. Who knows what this man's intentions were. Speed alone is not a guarantee that you can avoid strangers on a trail. Has anyone else encountered this type of situation?

  21. DJC - no, I've never come across anything like that, but I do most of my riding on major streets. I think you handled it as best you could have! Good that you had lights and some wariness about the situation. Proper preparation wins again.

  22. Mace... Don't leave home without it.

  23. around here it's not uncommon to be ambushed and pushed off your bike, it's impossible to navigate a 30+ mile ride without passing through some sketchy areas, and the danger will never be enough to keep me from riding. I was on the receiving end of an ambush last week and still have my bike. confidence is key, you have to remember these people aren't looking for a fight they just want your shit, stand up for yourself, make a scene, start screaming obscenities at them. I personally always carry a knife just in case. your life is more valuable than a motorist getting to their destination on time or some kid stealing a bike. I don't believe in allowing people to endanger my life.


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