The Motorist Mentality: Get Out of My Way

Last week once again a left-turning motorist almost ran me down in the crosswalk at the intersection of State and Aurora near my house. And once again rather than apologize this person yelled something inaudible but probably not nice at me, shook their fist at me, and sped off after passing inches from where I was standing. Why was this person so incredibly angry with me? What had I done? And then it hit me: motorists are not concerned with safety, they are concerned with fairness. This person was upset because I had stepped into an area he felt was his. His light was green, so from his perspective it was unfair of me to enter the crosswalk. (He neglected to account for the fact that left-turning vehicles don’t have the right-of-way.) He was willing to risk my life to show me that I was being unfair. What can we make of an otherwise rational person giving more importance to the temporary ownership of a patch of asphalt than to the safety of a fellow citizen? How did we come to this motorist mentality infecting our population, and what can we do to reverse it?

The typical motorist wants to go as fast as they can at all times and they don’t like it when someone or something prevents them from doing that. Do you have the motorist mentality? Ask yourself how many of the following statements apply to you:

  • I am usually in a hurry when I drive.
  • When I drive in the city I have a constant feeling that I’m not going fast enough.
  • I don’t like having to wait for pedestrians and bicyclists.
  • If the vehicle in front of me is going slower than I am I tailgate them, flash my lights at them, and honk my horn at them.
  • I regularly pass other cars in no-passing zones.
  • I regularly travel faster than the speed limit.
  • I often get upset by other vehicles when I drive in the city.
  • I feel safe in my car so I rarely think about safety.

Or do you have the bicyclist mentality:

  • I am not in a hurry most of the time.
  • I feel vulnerable so I think about safety a lot.
  • If a vehicle is in my way I go around them.
  • I don’t mind going slowly because other vehicles can pass me.
  • I like to say “hi” to other bicyclists.

The motorist mentality is one result of the space constraints caused by the introduction of massive numbers of wide fast vehicles onto our streets. Here’s an analogy. Picture a train station of the future with thousands of people getting their tickets and boarding their trains. Imagine now that all of those people are given rocket-powered roller skates. As a consequence, everyone must wear big hoop skirts for protection, and the hoop skirts cause each person to take up nine times as much area as before. Furthermore, suppose everyone must also wear ear protection which makes it impossible for them to hear each other. (Hollywood take note: this would make a great scene in your next science fiction movie.)

Everyone finds it difficult to get through the doors. They can no longer negotiate with each other who goes first. Lines form. Everyone must wait in line. Everyone must follow the rules. Everyone wants to go as fast as they can (“We’re wearing rocket skates for crying out loud!”). Some people get impatient and don’t follow the rules. Tempers flare. And the motorist mentality sets in. This is what happened to our streets 100 years ago when people started driving cars instead of walking. Now imagine the rocket skates becoming smaller and less powerful. The hoops skirts shrink and people slow down. The rocket skates are quieter now too, so that people can once again talk with each other. There is more room for everyone. People greet each other. Everyone is happy. No one has the motorist mentality any more.

This is certainly a pretty picture: all we need to do to return to our blissful origins is to make our vehicles slower and smaller. And I believe it could happen if enough of us want to make it happen. However, in the meantime, we must deal with what we’ve got. What does this motorist mentality, this “get out of my way” thinking, mean to bicyclists and motorists? How does knowing about it affect our behavior? First some tips for bicyclists:

  • Don’t follow the rules (you can read more about this idea in a previous post). The motorist mentality means traffic laws were not designed with your welfare in mind. They were designed to make traffic fair for motorists. Following all of the laws is likely to get you killed. (There are certain laws you should follow in order to ensure that motorists are fair to you, as described below.) For example the typical traffic light can be considered a device mainly intended to make intersections fair for motorists. Motorists are willing to wait at traffic lights because they know that they will get their turn. But traffic lights also make intersections dangerous for bicyclists. This is because a traffic light causes a large number of cars to congregate around the bicyclist. When the light changes those cars will explode from the starting line and jockey for position as they speed to the next light, without regard for your safety. (Right-turning cars are particularly dangerous.) You as a bicyclist will be safer if you run the red light. First check for cross traffic, and then cross if it’s clear. And it’s fine for you as a bicyclist to turn right on red, in spite of what the signs may say, because your vehicle is narrow. Nearby motorists sometimes howl with rage when they see me make these “illegal” maneuvers. They think I am doing something unfair, becauseĀ  they are not allowed to run the red light or turn right on red. I wish there were some way to tell them that I am merely giving my own safety a higher priority than being fair within a system meant for them.
  • Be courteous. Motorists are a generally crabby lot, and your good cheer will help them. This tip may appear to contradict the previous paragraph; the difference is that “don’t follow the rules” is about your relationship with an oblivious transportation system while “be courteous” is about your relationship with people. Since motorists can’t hear you, you must communicate with them by hand gestures. As a bicyclist there are certain hand gestures you will be tempted to use after a motorist has unthinkingly threatened your life, but you must refrain. Instead, wave hello to people. Politely signal for them to go around you if you are taking the lane. Say thank you with a smile when they give you your right of way.
  • Assert yourself. The motorist mentality makes motorists very careful to be fair to their fellow motorists. But ironically motorists think nothing of being unfair to bicyclists, so much so that many bicyclists are intimidated into riding long distances on the sidewalk and riding the wrong way down the street. Both of these behaviors are extremely dangerous. Ride in the street. It belongs to you and don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t. Take up the full lane if necessary. Get in the left lane to turn left. These are all rules you do need to follow if you want to gain the respect of motorists and ensure that they treat you fairly.

How can you motorists overcome the motorist mentality? Here are my tips:

  • Relax. You made a transportation choice that has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that you have a nice big cozy box to sit in. The disadvantage is that so many other people have also chosen to ride in big cozy boxes that you all must wait in line to get across town. If someone cuts in front of you don’t blame that person, blame your collective choice of vehicle. Accept the trade-off you made. Better than that, enjoy the trade-off you made. Bring a book or some knitting to work on while you wait in line in your big cozy box.
  • Make the journey as important as the destination. Budget enough time to go slowly on purpose. Listen to the radio. Look out the window. (But put down the cell phone.) Enjoy.
  • Get your priorities straight. Your car easily weighs enough to crush a person to death. It goes fast enough to kill a person on impact. It is wide enough that it leaves little room for error on city streets. That is a big responsibility. Consider how unimportant it is to be concerned about “that person is in my way” when there is the larger concern of “am I being safe with this large machine entrusted to me?”

I hold out hope that the motorist mentality can be eradicated in my children’s lifetime. Today I read about an electric vehicle for sale in my town that has a top speed of 25mph. I think most people’s reaction will be that that speed is too big a sacrifice, that we need to make a better electric car. I think the car is fine, and that we need to change our assumptions about speed. For me driving a low-speed car would be a step up from my electric cargo bike (especially in winter!). And driving it around at a paltry 25mph would be an opportunity to cure myself of my motorist mentality.

  • Don

    I love your site and am usually in agreement with your point of view. I’ve even linked to your blog when you’ve expressed an idea better than I could. But I recently took the opposite stance of your recommendation to “break the rules” ( At least for those of us with electric motors, we can start from a red light nearly as quickly as most cars – at least until they shift to second gear. I think that puts us in a different category from unpowered bikes. The price of the extra power is the responsibility to share the road and not cause extra frustration for motorists (who are, I agree, pretty stressed already). In the long run, I think that will be a safer strategy for everyone involved.

    I was intrigued by the electric vehicle you mentioned. When I followed the link and checked the specs, they claimed a top speed of 65 mph. Is there a different version with a top speed of only 25 mph? I’m not sure a car with that limitation would be legal where I live (unfortunately).

    • admin


      I’m a great admirer of your blog and I see you as a blogging brother :-). I hope my post wasn’t too confrontational. I see my role in cargo bike blogdom is to get people to think anew about things they’ve taken for granted. Traffic rules are something people take for granted, but really in the big picture it’s the rules that are the aberration, not the behavior of rogue pedestrians and bicyclists. Humans have gotten along fine without traffic laws for thousands of years; just one rule, the golden rule, has worked well enough. Let’s ask ourselves why we have traffic laws and if we really need them. What would it be like without them? I was inspired to think about this question last spring when I saw following movie that shows a San Francisco street in 1906:
      You will see that there are pedestrians, horses, trolley cars, bicycles, and automobiles all mingling together on the street. What’s interesting is how slow everyone is going, and how everyone appears to co-exist peacefully. People stroll casually in front of other vehicles, confident that those vehicles will stop. Kids run in between vehicles. Cars and horses go the wrong way, and no one seems to mind. There are no traffic signals at the intersections, perhaps because people feel comfortable crossing all along the street. It’s like a dance. It’s beautiful chaos. And I think it’s a more humane system than we have now.

      This movie led me to buy the book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. I haven’t read it yet. But when I do you can bet that I’ll write a post about it! In the meantime, if you don’t have time to read the whole book, here’s a good summary by still another bikin’ blogger:

      To answer your second question, the electric car for sale here in Ithaca is the $19,000 Weego Whip LSV with a top speed of 25mph. The manufacturer also makes the $$33,000 Weego LiFe but for some reason that car is not yet available here.

  • We have a Miles electric car which was made to do only 25, but the dealer has boosted up so it will go about 35. Driving this car has cured my “motorist mentality” for the most part. We use it for in town driving when we don’t want to ride the bikes. I’m having more trouble with bikes, running stop signs, not signaling, riding on the wrong side of the road. There are a lot of new riders out there that used to drive and now can’t afford too.

    • admin


      I’m curious how useful you find your electric car. The newspaper says the Weego Whip is restricted to 35mph zones in New York State. Most of the places I want to go have stretches of 45mph roads. Do you drive on 45mph roads? Are you legally allowed to? Have you ever been hassled by the fuzz for doing so? I don’t think I can convince my wife to get one of these cars unless we can travel on 45mph roads.

      I agree that biker populations are up. I’ve started driving slowly as a result.

  • Hi there. Love watching your sites. We use our car alot. The highest speed I’ve had it was 47 down a big hill. The only thing is it hates going up hills. We live in Springfield MO and it’s relatively flat, so we do ok. They really don’t pay any attention to me, I couldn’t make a get away if I had to. I have driven on 45 mph roads but only if I have to. We got ours licensed as a regular car, not a NEV so we can go anywhere.
    I have a blog, there’s a picture of the car on there if you want to see it.
    Thanks again, Rick

  • this is a late reply to this post, but I just found it today and it resonates with my bike experiences this afternoon. We had a lot of snowfall and the Commerial St. road we all bike and drive on was narrower and slippery with ice and slush; but drivers were as impatient to get “there” as ever, so for example, a SUV driver steamed past me only to suddenly stop 50 feet ahead for a parking spot at the curb. The driver hadn’t had time to shut the engine off before I wheeled by. I don’t understand that crazy need to get there now. Still again, farther up the same road, another SUV whizzed by and yes, stopped in the middle of the road not 50 feet on, flung both driver door and passenger door open to switch drivers. This meant the road was blocked entirely, so I had to work my way around the open driver door and I heard the driver say, “oh, excuse me”. I hadn’t been peddaling fast on this snowy road, but nonetheless it would have meant only a half minute delay for that driver to go my speed behind me, up to his stop. The only explanation is that the motorist sense of entitlement to the road is complete and there is no consciousness of bikes as legitimate vehicles. In other words, bikes are still toys and obstacles to the true road owners. In the future this kind of arrogance may in fact go away very quickly as the peak oil phenomenon takes all that power from them. There I said it, nice to get it off my chest to a blog that understands!

  • I wonder if it’s as much a sense of entitlement as fairness: drivers feel they ‘Own’ the road, and they’ve been told for years that it’s a kind of sacred space, there to facilitate their mobility. Road too narrow? the sae widens it. Awkward town in the way? A wide bypass is provided. Need to walk too far to the shops? more parking appears.
    To suddenly find themselves confronted with someone else, not in a car, using ‘their’ space is an affront. It’s offensive to the car culture because it contradicts what they believe. And worse still, this person isn’t paying $4 a gallon (or $8-9 a gallon in Germany) and still can use the road.

    I think this will get worse as drivers feel their sense of entitlement threatened by higher gas prices.

  • Sorry, ‘sae’ in my commen should read ‘State’.