Stalked by a car

I recently asked about safety and security concerns while cycling through your neighborhood, and I mentioned that I feel very safe in my neighborhood.  That answer stands, but after more than a year of daily riding, I had my first tense, non-traffic-related cycling safety incident.

Night Riding (note this is a pic from last week, I was on Betty not Oma)

Night Riding (old photo with Oma not Betty Foy)

I was riding home alone with Betty Foy at 9 p.m. on a residential one-way street that I take all the time – not deserted, but not a major thoroughfare.  I didn’t hear any cars, but noticed through my rear view mirror the dark outline of a car behind me with its headlights off.  The car did not pass me, but stayed creeping behind (I was going about 14 mph, I’d guess). 

The situation felt wrong, so I picked up the pace and when I came to a stop sign where traffic can only keep straight or take a right, I quickly took a right.  I saw in my mirror that the car turned right after me without stopping first or using its turn signal.  No one turns right on that street because it is only one block long, solely residential.  I pedaled as fast as I could and considered but rejected the idea of turning down an alley.  The street ended at a one-way cross road, so I turned the wrong way and rode on the sidewalk.  At that point I lost the car and was grateful for one-way streets and the maneuverability of bikes.  I kept riding as fast as I could, zigzagging through the neighborhood before finally riding the rest of the way home in record time. I was sure the car was not still following me because I had gone quite a distance; otherwise I would have gone to a public place like a restaurant or police station instead of going home.

The entire event could have been a coincidence – perhaps the car drove slowly behind me because it was planning to turn right ahead and was being super nice … and forgot to turn its lights on or signal its turn.  Or maybe the guy was bored and messing around.  I was not going to stick around to find out – I had pepper spray, a u-lock and a loud scream, but I would prefer to avoid using any of that.

I am not entirely comfortable posting about this because: I could have overreacted; I don’t want to contribute to a culture of fear; and I don’t want comments lecturing me to be more careful – I am hyper careful and aware of the safety precautions that go with living while female.  But Let’s Go Ride a Bike is all about documenting our own experiences with city cycling as they happen, and this particular experience is a good reminder for everyone, especially women, always to be aware of your surroundings and follow your gut.  Rear view mirrors are essential for me riding in traffic and here’s another reason to have one.  Take advantage of your bike’s speed and maneuverability.  I’m not going to say don’t travel alone after dark because that’s impractical, especially in winter when the sun sets before the evening commute, but consider choosing major streets over side streets after dark if an assessment of the situation shows that would be safer.  Depending on the variables, the devil you know (traffic) may be better than the devil you don’t (creepy stalker).

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35 thoughts on “Stalked by a car

  1. Even in the best of neighborhoods, anything can happen both off and on a bicycle (including when you are feeling safely locked in your own house), and the only solution is to have plans and resources at the ready for dealing with it. You’ll never know what that car behind you wanted, but you didn’t stick around to find out, which I think was the best thing to do in this situation.

    I’ve always resented that advice for women to “never travel alone after dark”, because I am the kind of person who likes being alone, and this would seriously reduce my quality of life. Instead, I’ve always simply tried to be aware and prepared.

  2. anna says:

    I think you reacted the right way, I would have done the same, I’m sure (using a sidewalk or one-way street to get rid of the car). I have seen cars that forgot to turn on the lights at night, but none of them followed me.

  3. vertigo says:

    Thank you so much for the post. I am planning of getting a bike when I move back home to Boston (I am currently studying in the UK), and I am trying to biggest all the tips that I can get. I also appreciate that you didn’t promulgate the culture of fear that often is given to women, but instead to be vigilant of your surroundings.

  4. Erich says:

    Good tip from your post – get a mirror. You probably would not have noticed otherwise.

  5. dukiebiddle says:

    Oy. Very well handled. Being a guy, creepy stalkers is never a variable I consider factoring into the safety equation.

  6. ksteinhoff says:

    You were right to trust your instincts. Our ancestors who didn’t ended up tiger food.

    As far as I can tell, you did everything right. If you were REALLY concerned, I’d have turned into the first house with lights on and knocked on the door. That would have scared the person off, I’m sure.

    I WOULDN’T have gone to my house unless I was absolutely sure I wasn’t being followed or unless I knew someone was there.

    Noise makers are good. I have an AirZound compressed air horn on my bike. When I first started riding, I’d cruise around in a large neighborhood park with bike paths after dark. The park was occupied by large numbers of homeless at night. We got to know each other from seeing each other every night, so I asked them to come running if they heard my horn. Never needed the help, but it was nice to know it was there.

    Other things you can do:

    1. Do a u-turn and stop. A car is harder to turn than a bike. If you’re followed, then go to a house or public place.

    2. Pull out (or pretend to pull out) your cell phone and make a point of talking on it.

    Thinking about how to deal with situations like these isn’t paranoia, it’s preparation. I never get on an airplane without counting how many rows it is to the nearest exits fore and aft; ditto how many doors to two exits from any multi-story hotel.

    My kids were always taught to immediately locate two exits in any room they enter. (The lessons took, too. I was out with my nearly 30-year-old the other night and asked him, “Where are the two exits?” and he immediately pointed them out, with a grin.)

    As a long-time newspaper photographer, I’ve seen what has happened to folks who weren’t aware of their surroundings when bad stuff happened.

    Don’t worry. Be aware. Play what-if games so you’re ready to respond without thinking.

  7. grambev says:

    As a reader of Ann Rule’s true crime books I feel sure that the person driving the car was stalking you for the worst of a purposes. You were smart to handle the situation the way you did. Many hugs, I love you! : )

  8. Ash says:

    Wow. That’s really creepy. I’m glad everything turned out ok!

  9. Ellen says:

    NEVER ignore your woman’s intuition. You got a creepy vibe and you did the right thing, too bad you couldn’t have gotten his license plate info, though and provided it to the police. Like the previous poster who cited Ann Rule’s books, every one of his moves was creepy and not “innocent”. You are alive and well this morning because you are in touch with yourself. Glad you are OK and thanks for posting so other women will heed their inner voice, also.

  10. Todd says:

    It was definitely an unusual situation. You did and thought correctly every step of the way. The advice given seems solid to me. Abrupt u-turns, chit chatting on the cellie or at least pretending to, a noise maker of some sort (a big ol’ storm whistle would work). Going to a public place or a local police station. Contributing to the society of fear would mean you are hiding at home not riding and enjoying life. You are aware, which makes you safe.

    For those of us who are male. Don’t make the mistake of thinking just because you are a man you won’t be assaulted or messed with. It can happen. Be aware.

    Dottie, thanks for posting this any story that helps cyclist stay safe is a good thing.

  11. dukiebiddle says:

    Just out of curiosity (and this is by no means a lecture to anybody about anything), does your Betty Foy have dynamo or battery powered lighting? I’m asking because on my little imaginary checklist of things to remember to do when I’m trying to escape from dicey situations, turning off my red blinkey features prominently on my list. I’m not sure I’m too comfortable with the dynamo feature of automatically making me visible, whether I want to be visible or not.

  12. Dean Peddle says:

    You did all the right things and I’m glad you didn’t panic. Just to hilight ksteinhoff point above I’ve also been followed, obviously for different reasons than you (I think I yelled at some car). I pulled out a phone like I was calling the police and the car immediately drove off. Another tip to keep in mind.

  13. Sox says:

    You were correct. If the alarms are going off, listen to them. Better to feel silly later if it was an innocent event than regretting not doing something different.
    And my motto is and always will be ‘better a live coward than a dead hero’.

  14. Catherine says:

    I think you were right to follow your instincts. One thing I’ve learned from my recent break-in is that you shouldn’t second guess yourself. All night before it happened, I was really freaked out for no apparent reason (to the point of carrying a knife around the apartment looking in closets) and kept saying “you’re crazy, Catherine, stop freaking out”. When I woke up to flashlights in my house, my first instinct was “someone’s in my house” but again, I told myself that I was just being panicky and silly, that I’m prone to flights of imagination, that it was probably light from the traffic outside and I should go back to sleep. Luckily that only lasted 20 or so seconds before I stopped second guessing myself and I then reached for the phone and called the police. But still. A lot could have happened in that 20 seconds.

    I still wonder what my being freaked out earlier in the evening was all about. Maybe I “felt” someone watching me through the windows?

    I think that this second guessing of instincts is just as bad as living in the culture of fear. That by trying to not seem weak or silly, we are tempted to ignore our instincts which is really dangerous. Thinking that it is unsafe to be outdoors at night and/or expecting to be attacked when you pass by every alley, bush or tree…that’s not good. But feeling suspicious and weirded out by someone acting decidedly against the norm….perfectly understandable. But aside from what’s understandable or “reasonable”–you should just be confident in trusting yourself and your instincts.

  15. RidingPretty says:

    Dottie. so sorry to hear about so many scary and unpleasant events happening to you this summer on your rides. Hang in there. Keep positive.

  16. Joey says:

    Strange things happen at night. Years ago I had the same thing happen during a late, late night jog (this guy was following me). From then on I took my dog, or rolled with pepper spray. You can never be too sure.

  17. Acacia says:

    Never feel silly for following your instincts and keeping yourself safe.

  18. Carolyn says:

    Glad it turned out ok. I know I had said in your security that I had taken a subway by myself in NYC late at night. But I only did because the streets were busy with people, were well lighted and the subway/subway station was full of people. I would have not done that if the area was empty. Wouldn’t have felt comfortable with that. I did have cab money if I at any time felt uncomfortable.

    I’ve had to shake some people who I suspected were following me while I was biking…I can understand how freaky that must have felt. Turning off the back blinker to disappear into the darkness makes sense..to hide..get away… Feel ok here though where I live, at least on a bike you can escape easier (faster driving down road on bike) then if I was on foot.

  19. Carolyn says:

    ‘I know I had said in your post about Security’ That’s what I meant above.

  20. sara says:

    It’s very good to read what you did in this situation & read folks’ follow-up comments. I actually don’t have a rear mirror and have been thinking about getting one. I am glad it all turned out fine, albeit a bit creepy, and yes, I did like your “a-hole” tag on this post…

  21. I would like to add to the chorus, here, with one addition- don’t be frightened, be proud! You recognized a situation and reacted to it appropriately. Life gets messy, with or without a bicycle, so we should be proud when we follow our instincts and do what we should do instead of panicking and making it worse!

    Good for you!

  22. nadarine says:

    I am fully creeped out for you, and also really glad that you followed your instincts here and took proactive steps to get out of a bad situation. (Hurrah for knowing your neighborhood path, and all the features of the streets around you! Hurrah for one-ways!)

  23. dottie says:

    This incident was nothing compared to the young woman who was shot with a BB gun or the young woman who was almost pushed off her bike while riding home at night in Chicago. That is effed up. Much shadier neighborhoods, but reading about incidents like this makes me think this city is too crazy.

  24. Karen says:

    I agree that one can’t live in fear and as a woman I refuse to live my life as if danger lurked around every corner. However, my own experiences have taught me to take appropriate precautions. I don’t really limit what I do but I do listen to my instincts and if I feel “creaped out” about a situation or person I put distance between myself and the situation. In a couple of instances I have actually confronted people who seemed intent on intimidating me. In both situations, the individuals backed down. Bad guys prefer to deal with submission, fearful people rather than those who might put up a fight and get loud – in most cases, that is.

  25. Well done, Dottie. As they say in Australia, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.”

    I think as cycling grows in popularity, such incidents will decline. But if its any consolation, it can get a LOT worse:

    http://www.citizen-times.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20090818/NEWS01/908180328

  26. antbikemike says:

    Good job Dottie! You did everything right. I am really glad you made this post to help other people know how to listen to their instincts and find a quick plan of action. I rely on my helmet mirror daily.

  27. Joe Miller says:

    I recently purchased directional turn signals for my bike and the 1st day I used them they saved my life at an intersection where a truck was making a right turn.
    It’s a no brainer. I purchased mine at http://www.safetybikesignals.com

  28. Lorenza says:

    So sorry to hear about such an unpleasant incident. You can never be too careful, so it’s always good to follow your instinct! It has happened to me too (especially on foot, which is worse!). I am glad you got to safety and nothing serious happened in the end. I agree completely about not fuelling this fear-saturated society!! Children are now stuck indoors turning silly watching hours on end of TV :( everyone is scared of what happens ‘out there’, but so long as one is aware of his/her surroundings and applies common sense it’s better to enjoy life than being stuck indoors! I hope you get to enjoy more happy cycling :D

  29. dottie says:

    Thanks, everyone :)

  30. Texafornia says:

    You reacted fine. But that same situation could have happened to you even if you were in a car, so don’t worry that biking had anything to do with it.

  31. Judy says:

    Think you did the right thing. Never go to your hourse! Find a well-lighted spot and somewhere they can’t go. If you had been wrong about the person, you can laugh about it later. Otherwise, better safe than sorry.

  32. auntdj&cousins says:

    We are proud you!

  33. Pop Richmond says:

    I was followed once by two creepy looking guys in a creepy looking van, and you’re right, it’s really creepy. I did the same as you, took some funny streets that don’t really lead anywhere to see if I was really being followed. luckily I was close to a small shopping center, so I rode there to get rid of them.

  34. … [Trackback]…

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