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Friday, March 30, 2007

Self-Defense for Bicyclists

Jack at Tallpoppy, a commuting cyclist, writes:

Texas just expanded the legitimacy of deadly force to include vehicles and workplaces. [...] You're allowed to use deadly force to protect yourself in your vehicle. Regular readers should be able to spot where I'm heading with this.

Picture it: you're cycling down the road at a good clip, and some oncoming idiot swerves to force you into the ditch, laughing as you're forced off the road and they drive off secure in their metal cocoon. Previously, you'd have had to content yourself with getting their license plate number. Now you can just pull a .45 loaded with hollowpoints out of your jersey pocket and blow the little fucker's head off (while taking care to ensure that their uncontrolled car does not cause an accident) as soon as they start swerving towards you.

Oh, I'm sure there will be weasel words in the bill about being in fear of your life, but that's the beauty of it: on a bike, most of the inconsiderate or malicious stuff that drivers can do does put you in fear of your life. So they've just given us carte blanche to strap a Glock to the top tube.

Ah, such lovely thoughts bring back the days of my youth. After my fourth year of college (a mid-stream change of majors cost me an extra year), I was offered a summer job at what was then Sperry-Univac in Roseville, MN (a suburb of Minneapolis-St. Paul). It didn’t hurt that Michigan Tech had Univac mainframes at the time; I was already familiar (as a user) with their products. Like many college students in 1981, I was financing my education partly through scholarships, largely through parental help, and partly through summer jobs and part-time jobs on campus. The occasional short-term loan, financed by the college for the college, smoothed out cash flow bumps. Thus, my mindset upon arriving in Minneapolis in my beat-to-hell '66 Rambler was “find somewhere cheap to live.”

After turning down the absolute-cheapest option, a filthy unfurnished upstairs room in a house full of drug-addled hippies (they literally talked like Cheech y Chong) for $50/month, I found a furnished one-room apartment on Aldridge, just off West Broadway and close to the river, for $140/month. That part of town was kind of on the edge at the time — two blocks north, it was pretty nice; two blocks south were slums. But the location was good; it was less than six miles from the office, and grocery stores and restaurants were only a couple of blocks away.

In addition to my Rambler, I brought along my old Schwinn Continental 10-speed — a good move for a summer in Minneapolis, which was bike-friendly years before many other cities. I lived in a “walkable” (if seedy) part of town, within biking distance of my job, and I was trying to save money, so I used the Schwinn pretty heavily for that three months. In the 5.5 miles between the apartment and office were 17 traffic lights, and I found it took 20 minutes to make the commute by car and 25 by bicycle. The 30- to 40-mile weekend rides were fun — Mom accused me of not exploring the city, since I didn’t know where the good restaurants were, but I saw quite a bit of it atop the Schwinn.

Although there were bike trails running all over town, mostly between the parks, West Broadway was somewhat less bike-friendly and heavily travelled during rush hour. Trying to be the considerate person I was raised to be (not to mention the natural self-preservation drive), I stayed as close to the curb as I could for most of the trip. However, there were a couple of narrow spots and had some fairly close brushes.

Then one day, I had an idea. Instead of wrapping the heavy chain that I used to keep the bike secure (this was a seedy part of town, remember) around the seat post, I simply doubled it up and draped it over my neck. Suddenly, I found drivers giving me plenty of room. It was like having my own bike lane, even in the narrowest spots. It seems I wasn’t the only person on the road concerned with self-preservation: I could have easily caught any miscreants at the next light and given them what-for.

The chain may also have kept me out of a fight one morning: a local bus got “caught” behind me, right at Aldridge and West Broadway. I crossed Aldridge at the light, but the bus was unable to get through. As I was waiting for the light to let me across Broadway, a guy jumped off the bus and started screaming at me — I don’t remember anything he said, but his demeanor was totally at odds with his business attire. I said nothing, just watched him as he continued his tirade… but when he stepped into the street toward me, I pulled the chain off my neck. He stepped back quickly, and continued to scream at me until I got the green light and rode away.

So Jack’s thought about “[strapping] a Glock to the top tube” is not quite the right way to go about it — my own experience suggests that displaying weaponry is key. A Glock should be stuffed in the back of one’s riding shorts, with the grip protruding and very visible. Perhaps a shoulder holster would be more secure, with the gun hung on the back. This would probably work even in locales where self-defense isn’t an explicit right — the whole point is to not get run off the road in the first place, and visible weaponry is perhaps the best deterrent.

I hope commuting cyclists will try this out and report back on how well it works.


  1. I used to see people doing this a fair bit in Cambridge - there was the choice of either wearing the chain around your neck, like Mr T, or slung bandolier-style. Bonus: if you have a courier bag, you can sling the chain across the opposite shoulder from the bag, and correct the imbalancing effect of bags with a single shoulder strap.

  2. I LOVE this post, FF!

    I commuted by bike to work one summer too.

    Kansas City is NOT and never has been bike friendly. And if any of our kids suggested they regularly ride the path I took, I wouldn't allow it.

    But I had the time of my life. I was never, ever again, in better shape. I think I weighed less than 115 pounds and it was without dieting.

    I don't remember locking it up at all though. We must not have had a crime problem -- because it was a very good 10-speed (this was 1973) and I never worried about it.

    It sure would have been great to have that chain in traffic, though (shudder)

  3. Hi guys...

    Jack, I wear a courier bag when motorcycling to work (40 miles is just a little too far for pedaling), to carry a laptop. I just let the strap out a little and let it sit on my back. That's probably not an option of you're wearing a Camelback, but it has worked pretty well for me.

    KB, you probably didn't live or work in a seedy part of town. A friend of mine had his 5-speed stolen in the little Michigan town we grew up in, back in the early 70s. But you're right, it's a lot of fun and eliminates the need for diets or gyms.

  4. At some point I realized that if I rode prudently near the curb, the drivers wouldn't respect me and would often crowd me, but if I rode rather aggressively out in the driving lane, the cars were forced to go around me (and I had room to swerve toward the curb if they didn't).

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  6. Let me try that again...

    Hi Leslie!

    That reminds me of something I heard about motorcycling… if you act like you’re invisible, or vice versa, other drivers will somehow pick up on that. Of course, just because you cop an “I’m a Sherman tank” attitude doesn’t mean you can ignore everyone else out there…


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