Road rage, staying calm and 'cycling graciously'

You often hear it before you see the source. The raucous horn, the shout of abuse from a nearby car - perhaps an instruction to get off the road, with a few choice swearwords thrown in.

Do you fire back immediately? Flash a middle finger? Return the abuse, if they're still in earshot? 

Road rage is, sadly, a common phenomenon on Australian roads. It comes in all shapes and sizes and flows between all road users, and most riders I know have experienced it in one form or another.

The official advice is not to respond.

Easier said than done? Maybe. But surely the best course of action.

"I've never seen a situation improve for anyone, out on the roads, by switching to 'fight' mode," says cycling instructor Rob Berry.

"You're out there and you feel threatened because you're a vulnerable road user – pedestrians and cyclists are going to feel more vulnerable than someone in a car surrounded by a tonne of metal – and so why would you argue with them? Engaging with it is totally counter-productive, it will only escalate the situation and will leave you even more agitated."

Berry is the general manager of BikeWise, which runs courses for both novice riders and those wanting to upgrade their skills. He is a strong advocate of bringing a positive mindset to one's riding, to help deal with the many challenging experiences one can have on the road, from random instances of abuse to unnerving interactions caused by careless or clueless fellow road users.

"One of the key principles we teach is to 'cycle graciously'," he says. "This includes not returning aggression with more aggression, accepting that people make mistakes (including yourself) and being forgiving of it, and doing my best to get other vehicles behind me in front of me – while still claiming all the space I need to be safe."

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Berry says the phrase – which he first heard as a course participant – "really transformed my experience of riding. If you change your mindset and start interpreting things differently, the whole world changes around you."

Tina McCarthy, an AustCycle coach who runs the Wheel Women rides in Victoria, says she always instructs riders not to buy into conflict.

"If a driver starts laying down the abuse, then I would suggest that person is already in a fairly unreasonable frame of mind," she says.

"I think these situations often occur because the person responsible wants the reaction – so it's best to ignore it and not give them what they want."

Chance to calm down

Another common trigger for anger is a misconception that you're breaking the law or cycling unwisely.

"A lot of people tell me that they weren't doing anything wrong and someone got angry with them, and they really wanted to tell that other person that they didn't understand the road rules," says Berry.

"I understand that because I'm an educator. But I know that out on the road, having an argument, is not a time when someone is receptive to learning."

Riding in anything other than a positive frame of mind can be dangerous for you, says Berry. "If you are still dwelling on what happened 10 minutes ago and are angry or upset, then stop riding and give yourself a chance to calm down."

For me, the key thing to remember is that the overwhelming majority of road users are trying to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, I find my bad experiences continue to decrease. It may be that I have become better at anticipating conflict situations - and, I hope, better at controlling my emotions. But maybe it's not just me.

Berry, who does his weekday riding in inner Sydney, says that "I ride out of the CBD every weekend, and my overall impression really does seem to be that things are improving everywhere."

McCarthy also feels that people are becoming more accepting of cycling, although "there is still a long way to go in educating drivers towards what cyclists are allowed to do on the road".

It's part of the human condition to remember the bad incidents more than the good. But cycling is such a joy to me, I'm going to focus on the latter - while working on making my rides even smoother.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

How do you deal with confrontation on the road? Tell us in the comments below.

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