Theoden Janes

Why flipping off a group of cyclists is an awfully bad idea

A woman gives the middle finger to a cyclist after a run-in with the group in Ballantyne on Wednesday.
A woman gives the middle finger to a cyclist after a run-in with the group in Ballantyne on Wednesday. Courtesy of Angela Olson

The photograph makes The Woman in the Silver Mercedes look like a lunatic: wide-eyed, grinning with mouth agape, hands raised with palms facing outward, both middle fingers extended.

And it’s a photo that, without a doubt, she’s now sorry she ever posed for.

That’s because late Wednesday night, it was posted on Facebook by a stranger and wound up making her a virtual punching bag for hundreds of Charlotte-area cyclists who’ve had it up to here with people like The Woman in the Silver Mercedes.

But let’s back up. Here’s what happened early Wednesday evening, according to Angela Olson:

Olson and a group of about 30 other cyclists were cruising along Ballantyne Commons Parkway when The Woman in the Silver Mercedes – allegedly – broke a state law that requires motorists to give cyclists at least two feet of clearance by – allegedly – intentionally buzzing the group in a manner designed to intimidate.

She then – allegedly – pulled ahead of the group of cyclists, swerved into the bike lane, and slammed on her brakes.

The cyclists confronted the motorist at a red light at the intersection with Elm Lane, where she proceeded to – according to Olson – be “angry, snarky and mean.”

Of course, there’s one thing that transpired that doesn’t legally require me to preface with the word “allegedly”: The woman in fact leered out of the window of her car, she in fact put a crazed grin on her face, and she in fact looked directly into the smartphone as she flipped an amusingly awkward double-bird. (I mean, who on God’s green earth gives the middle finger with their palm facing out??)

The offending picture went up onto Olson’s Facebook page a few hours later, but it was actually another photo she posted – taken from behind the vehicle – that created the bigger problem for The Woman in the Silver Mercedes.

And as outrage among Olson’s network of fellow cyclists spread quickly, it wasn’t long before someone used the license plate number to track down the name of the owner of the vehicle, and once her name got out, it was ballgame.

Among the 1,800-plus people who “Liked” Olson’s post, the roughly 2,000 who shared it, and the almost 300 who commented on it were vigilante detectives who tracked down The Woman in the Silver Mercedes’ personal info. On the comment thread, they publicized various bits of personal information, including where she works and a suspected phone number.

Presumably, the driver was bombarded online, because within 24 hours, her known social media accounts had all been deactivated, and she had given a “very emotional” off-camera interview to a local TV station claiming she is “scared,” and “has gotten cruel and threatening messages – not only on social media, but over the phone.”

(My attempts to reach the woman via email and phone were unsuccessful.)

WCNC’s reporter also noted: “When we went to get the interview on camera, she said that CMPD police had advised her – along with her legal counsel – not to speak with us.”

OK, so now we get to the part where I’m supposed to feel sorry for The Woman in the Silver Mercedes. Except ... I don’t. (I also, for what it’s worth, think WCNC was irresponsible in basically painting her as the victim, using judgmental sound bites from random men/women on the street, and apparently not making the driver address the road-rage component of the story.)

Do I think she deserves threatening phone calls? Of course not (although those claims frankly also should be treated as allegations, not truths, at this point). Threats are illegal, and illegal behavior shouldn’t be tolerated.

But if the cyclists’ side of the story is indeed accurate, The Woman in the Silver Mercedes was violating state laws and behaving in a way that could have gotten people killed. In fact, similar behavior has gotten people killed.

In June, a Michigan man was charged with second-degree murder after plowing into a group of cyclists, killing five. In May, a San Francisco woman was booked on suspicion of assault with a deadly weapon following an argument with a bicyclist. Adept Googling will turn up plenty of other horror stories.

Try this: Imagine you’re in your car, and you’re driving yourself to an appointment, or your kid to a sports practice, or to wherever, and you come upon a large group of cyclists.

Even if they’re not really and truly taking up half of the road, it feels like they’re taking up half the road, right?

And maybe you want to show them: Sorry, guys, but the road belongs to cars. Maybe by doing what The Woman in the Silver Mercedes did – by mashing the gas pedal and buzzing past as closely as possible, then pulling in front of the group and slamming on the brakes.

Look, we all have unwise revenge fantasies involving petty everyday annoyances.

The neighbor who leaves his trash cans out on the curb for days after pickup happened? Some of us would love to leave those receptacles lying on their side directly in front of his garage. The jerk at work who always takes up two parking spaces with his hulking luxury SUV? We secretly would find a bit of pleasure from “accidentally” parking a little too close and “accidentally” dinging his door with ours.

The majority of us have that safety catch, though – that little angel on our shoulder that says, Hey, let’s be a grown-up about this, or better yet, Let’s not risk accidentally picking the wrong (i.e. a dangerous) person to mess with.

Because the majority of us know in the back of our minds that, now more than ever, stupid behaviors can have far-reaching consequences.

Perhaps The Woman in the Silver Mercedes was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Perhaps she doesn’t deserve the level of vitriol she’s received. Perhaps this story will get to a point where she receives a punishment that’s harsher than whatever crimes she committed, and her detractors will start to feel a little guilty about piling on her.

But there was a way this all could have been avoided, and that’s by not being stupid. We don’t know the full story, but we definitely know The Woman in the Silver Mercedes flipped these cyclists the bird.

And for better or worse, in this unrelenting age where the media likes to go all-in on scandals and social media likes to glom on to outrage, if you act like an idiot, you reap what you sow.

Hundreds of bicyclists rode from the north end of Hilton Head Island to the south end a little after 4 p.m. on Aug. 25, 2016, in honor of Dr. Jeff Garske, who was killed Aug. 18 in a hit-and-run crash. The bikers rode from Honey Horn Plantation ac

Janes: 704-358-5897;

Twitter: @theodenjanes

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