In July I enjoyed a weekend of holiday in the Dutch province of Zeeland with my family. At one moment I was riding a bicycle with my brother, his wife, their baby and Stephanie in northern direction over the Oosterscheldekering and we arrived at a sluice called the Roompotsluis. Both bridges over this sluice are not wide enough to allow simultaneous passage of two cars, yet traffic from both directions is allowed. So drivers have to allow other drivers to pass if they arrive at the bridge at the same time.
At the moment we arrived at the eastern bridge over this sluice two drivers wanted to pass over the bridge. From the norther direction came a car with an older couple, around sixty years of age. From the southern half a Mercedes Benz SUV drove on, with a couple approximately fifty years old. Both drivers obviously wanted to pass the bridge first and didn’t want to let the other pass first. Both stopped on the bridge itself, with the noses of their cars facing each other.
While we drove on the bridge the driver of the Mercedes Benz stepped out to do something about the impasse that had arisen. I could have thought of many ways to solve the situation with good deliberation. Throw a coin, be the first to guess a number under ten. Or just simply giving the other driver some room and letting them pass first. But Mercedes man had other ideas. He stepped out, walked over to the other driver’s opened window and said approximately “I was first and if you don’t make way now I’ll do something to you”. I didn’t follow exactly what happened next, but it looked like the other driver didn’t say anything in response. In any case, the Mercedes man walked back to his car and the other driver drove backwards.
While he was walking back to his car we passed him at the center of the bridge. For some reason it always takes some time before these kinds of stressful situations with anti-social behavior register with me. A few seconds later we had passed the bridge and I said we should have told the Mercedes man that his behavior was unacceptable. My brother and his wife responded that they had ignored the event because my brother was vulnerable with their baby in the cargo bicycle. And because the Mercedes man could later use his car to ram us off the road.
I’m ashamed of myself for doing nothing, because I don’t consider my ‘freezing’ to be an excuse. In my rich fantasy the event keeps replaying, with alternative endings based on how I respond. In one version I have such a commanding presence that I convince the Mercedes man to apologize to the other driver for his threat. In another version I seethe with anger as soon as I hear the threat being uttered. I grab the Mercedes man by the collar and shake him up while I, screaming, make him clear how far he has crossed the line. Then the Mercedes man feels for himself what it is like to be on the receiving end of intimidation.
It is reasonable to consider whether intervention in this kind of situation is wise or not. If a group of drunk people passes me at night in a deserted street and exhibits aggressive behavior I would also avoid them and call the police at a safe distance. However, I get the idea that we make to choice against intervention too easily. The Mercedes man wasn’t drunk and was accompanied by his wife in his car. In the unlikely event of a fight I or my brother would have easily gotten the better of him. It didn‘t seem likely that he would damage his expensive car to ram us off the road a moment later. He behaved sufficiently rational to realize that his license plate would have been remembered. If every one of us in our group would have spoken out against his threat he most likely would have been scared off.
All of this is of course reasoning in hindsight, but the question is what kind of society we want to live. A risk averse society in which everyone has to fend for themselves, or a society in which we dare to stand up for strangers? De other driver who was intimidated by the Mercedes man must have seen us abandoning him. We can always think of some reason why we shouldn’t address others if their behavior is out of line. But what if you were that other driver? Would you have had sympathy for a group of cyclists who pass you and act as if they hear no threatening language?
I remember an event from about fifteen years ago quite well. When I was walking through the center of Culemborg a man on a moped was driving aggressively through the traffic. He snapped at a woman on a bicycle that she had to move out of the way. Almost directly he was called out on his behavior by another man on a bike, who told him resolutely that his behavior was detestable. The man on the moped, obviously surprised, drove along calm and quiet. There were more people around, but the man on the bicycle was the only one who intervened. My memory of this event is so clear because I look up to this man. Someone who, given an acceptable risk, stands up for others and reprimands bad behavior without freezing.