Sunday, September 30, 2018

Land crabs and porcupines

On the ride to work yesterday a motorist came across the centerline toward me on a sweeping curve with good sight lines, on a pretty morning with no fog or other obstructions. I could see his eye line, so I knew he was not distracted. His expression was ambiguous. I responded the way I almost always do to  a motorist encroaching on my space.

I moved toward him.

I've written many times before about body language, cadence, lane position and general affect as ways to communicate with the subconscious of motorists. They can sense fear, and anyone with a personality inclined to enjoy that will increase aggression if they get a fear response. People in general are likely to take whatever they can get, whether they're being careless or purposely pushy. You have to decide what to let them have.

In this instance, the motorist corrected his line and withdrew to his own side of the centerline. It was just another fleeting moment. I can't even know for sure whether he was reacting to my presence during any part of our encounter. I've also written about the near-uselessness of eye contact with a driver, because they can be very good at looking alert and still looking right through you. Or they use it as an opening to share opinions that you'd rather not have known. I try to keep all the communication nonverbal and impersonal, related only to the immediate need to maneuver around each other in the shared space of the roadway. Our long tradition of sealing ourselves into cans and speeding anonymously down the road has bred this isolationist culture in which we respond to each other as little as possible on a human level, and focus instead on ballistics.

After the pass I thought about how I represented no physical threat to the driver. The intent in moving confidently and unyieldingly is to convey the impression that the motor vehicle may be bigger and faster, but you are more dangerous. In cougar country, hikers are advised to make themselves look large, to discourage the predator from bothering with prey that could put up too much of a fight.  This is different from bear protocols, that say to look humble and retreat graciously. On the road you have to be ready to switch between these protocols, as you assess whether the motorist has a cat or a bear personality. For the most part, though, my first move is to look like a spiky mouthful.

The defense mechanisms of vulnerable creatures reminded me of road kill I'd seen in different ecosystems. In south Florida, I used to see land crabs crossing the roads. Their reflex when they see a threat is to brandish their claws. "That's right, f***er! Don't mess with me! I've got these!"

Blat. A car is unimpressed by threat displays, and a driver may have no time to react, not notice the creature, or be a sicko who gets off on killing things. In any case, the massive vehicle has the advantage. Sometimes the heavy shell of a large specimen can actually puncture a tire, but the crab didn't win, and the motorist was only inconvenienced.

Up here in the piney woods, porcupines waddle across the roads. When a vehicle charges down on them, they put up their quills. "Bring it," they say.

Blat again. In this case, the porcupine loses completely. The quills will not damage the vehicle.

Crabs and porcupines have only the one strategy. Crabs will sometimes accelerate their scuttle. Given the chance they will flee. If you go into their habitat you can see them run for cover of vegetation or a burrow. But porcupines simply do not run. They have two speeds: slow and slower. In their ancestral environment, they evolved not to need to retreat hastily.

As vulnerable road users, bicyclists can choose among strategic options based on specific circumstances. No matter what we do, our health and survival depend on not getting hit at all. There is no "next level" in a conflict with another road user. In any of our strategies we simply want to avoid contact with another vehicle piloted by another ostensibly thinking, feeling being.


Steve A said...

I always say "watch the wheels." On a highway, with the motorist coming toward you, that might better be the STEERING WHEEL than the road wheel. I totally agree that the "eye contact" notion is pretty much a myth that cyclists seem to believe in the total absence of any objective evidence.

cafiend said...

Yes. Approaching an intersection, I look for all signs of movement and intended direction, including a look at the driver only as part of the repeating cycle as I take in all possible cues. On the open road, I can't see what's coming up behind me, lacking either a rear camera or a mirror, so I use my ears and quick glances. The view ahead is the most important anyway. I have had motorists make threatening swerves from the opposite lane, as well as ambiguous incursions. And you always have to watch out for the left cross (in countries that drive on the right).

RANTWICK said...

+1 for the eye contact thing being oversold; cars have "body language" too that I find more useful and to which I am highly attuned when on the bike.

Labann said...
After 10,000 hours mostly in traffic, find that biking in a predictable manner, keeping your line as best you can, tends to avoid tragic encounters. But, yes, that means in the travel lane, not gutters full of obstacles, which you must swerve to avoid..