Last night Thao and I biked to Yoshi’s in Oakland and caught the last set, a tribute to jazz drummer Elvin Jones.
On the BART on the way home, we sat across from a couple of stylish hipsters on fixed gear bikes. We did the obligatory mutual inspection of each others’ bikes for a few moments and then settled into the ride under the tunnel.
A few minutes later I noticed the couple was holding their Kryptonites, passing them back and forth, comparing the size. Both of them had one of the smaller U-lock models, about 6 inches in length and 5 inches wide. Next thing I know, the guy was demonstrating how to punch someone by using the lock as extra weight in his fist.
The extra weight, he said, made the punch that much harder.
She said “I always thought it use it more like this…” and swung it by the U part.
He said, “No you still want to hold it by the barrel. When you go for the punch, if the guy ducks, you can let the shackle swing around. That way you get an extra six inches of reach he wasn’t expecting.
So I was thinking about this and wondering, is it beneficial for cyclists to even think along these lines. None of us wants to think about needing to defend ourselves when we’re riding our bike. But occasionally, cyclists do get attacked. In my immediate area around Berkeley, San Francisco, West Oakland, I have heard of several muggings happening to cyclists for no apparent reason. I wonder whether I should even write this on a web site where we are explicitly encouraging people to ride their bikes at night.
First of all, everybody assumes certain risks throughout their daily lives. If you stay home and watch TV all day, you risk terminal boredom. If you get out and ride your bike, you risk an accident or *very rarely* an attack by strangers.
I want to emphasize that this phenomenon is very rare, but has happened often enough to people in my direct circle of friends, that I think it is a real phenomenon. I have no statistical evidence to say whether bicyclists are more likely to be mugged than walkers or drivers. Also, none of the people I know who have been attacked while riding were seriously hurt.
Unfortunately, each of these attacks fit a similar pattern — a group of guys in their young 20′s steps out of a car or off the sidewalk, blocks the way of the biker, and then either verbally hassles or physically attacks them. The motive seems to be more ‘something to do to prove one’s manliness’ than theft. However, the attackers will probably take what you have anyway. One of my friends was carrying vinegar to a dinner party and the attackers demanded it, thinking it was liquor.
So what should you do to prevent this from happening to you?
First, examine your regular routes and consider the risk level. Ask others about the safety issues… “Have you ever had any problems in _______________ ?”
Don’t ride in stealth mode. Lights are good for your safety. You want to be seen by vehicles. The danger of being attacked by muggers is very minimal and not well established. It’s not known whether bright lights are positive, negative or neutral. However, the danger of being hit by a car is well-documented and easily preventable with lights.
Trust your instincts. If you don’t like a situation you’re riding towards, turn around and take another street. Recently I was on my way to West Oakland, I didn’t like the way a group of guys was walking across the road, because one of them wasn’t crossing with the others. I was scared they could surround me. So I turned around and took another street. I was close enough for them to realize why I was turning around. I heard them making fun of me. I have no evidence they wanted to attack me, but it didn’t feel right, so I turned around.
Don’t whip out your kryptonite and start swinging, unless your name is Jackie Chan. Using a weapon creates the possibility that the weapon will be used against you. This is especially true if you encounter a group.
Practice your verbal defenses. “Stop!” seems like an effective one, but I’m not a self-defense expert. One of my friends was able to escape a threatening situation by yelling “WHERE is the LOVE in your HEART?!!” at the top of his lungs.
Be a positive member of your community. Volunteer. Meet the neighborhood kids when they’re 10, 13, and 15. Work on your bike on your front steps and offer to help them with their bikes. When they’re 18, 21, and 23, they’ll know you as a cool person (and they’ll be into bikes.)
I welcome comments on this topic and think its valuable for cyclists to share experiences.