The Science of Cyclist Hate
Jim Saksa writes on Slate about why American drivers seem to have so much hatred for American bicyclists. He gets a little bit right, but I think he gets a lot wrong. First, the right: he discusses an interesting new study that shows that the number of cyclists in the US tripled between 1977 and 2009, yet the number of fatalities per 10 million bike trips fell by an incredible 63%. The problem is that he uses this study as a data point to support his hypothesis that cyclists have gotten less aggressive, which then he thinks supports his hypothesis that drivers are wrong when they think that all cyclists are law-breakers. That’s a whole lotta hypothesizin’ without a whole lotta science. (And speaking of a whole lotta: apparently I have a whole lotta stuff to say about this. Prepare yourself.)
Saksa goes on to explain yet another hypothesis – this time, for why drivers do end up hating cyclists. He settles on the affect heuristic – basically, the idea that when you have a strong emotional response to something, that tends to inform your future decision-making in related scenarios. Due in part to the affect heuristic, humans have a habit of miscalculating risks. Saksa suggests that a driver will remember a single cyclist breaking a law in a way that causes him to nearly run over her, and forget about all the safe cyclists he passes that are following the law.
So, this is a whole lot of conjecture to unpack: drivers hate cyclists because some cyclists run themselves into drivers, and now fewer cyclists are dying which means that cyclists are less aggressive, but drivers still hate them anyway. Here’s what would have to be true for those hypotheses to work out:
- Most, if not all, drivers who hate cyclists would have to have hit or nearly hit a cyclist at some point.
- Most, if not all, fatal accidents involving cyclists would have to be the fault of the cyclists breaking the law.
- Increasing numbers of cyclists would automatically lead to fewer cyclists breaking the law.
Seeing as Saksa doesn’t provide any evidence to back up any one of those points, I’d suggest this as a more likely explanation for what’s going on:
- The affect heuristic is one small part of a much larger and more complex problem of why drivers hate cyclists.
- Most fatal accidents involving cyclists are the fault of the driver.
- Increasing numbers of cyclists lead to improved safety by an accompanying increase in bike lanes, visibility, and knowledge of bike law.
I’ll admit that, like Saksa, I’m a long-time frequent cyclist, and so, like Saksa, I’ve built up my own hypotheses based upon my experience cycling in wildly different cultures, from Boston to London to Copenhagen. Unlike Saksa, though, I have at least a bit of science to back up what I’m saying.
First of all, let’s deal with “fault.” This is a tough thing to quantify, especially in countries where cyclists generally aren’t well-respected and aren’t protected by the law. However, there have been studies done: the Transport Research Laboratory in the UK found in 2009 that for cyclists over the age of 25 who sustained serious injuries in an accident, the driver was entirely at fault 64-70% of the time and the cyclist at fault 23-27%. For cyclists over the age of 25 who died in a crash, the driver was entirely at fault 48-66% of the time and the cyclist at fault 33-43%. The TRL also found that when cyclists were seriously injured, only 2% of the accidents were due to the rider disobeying a stop sign or traffic light.
So why do drivers hate cyclists? I agree that a part of it is an overestimation of the danger cyclists pose, which can sometimes be based on the driver actually witnessing a cyclist breaking the law. As Saksa hints at in his article, it can also be exacerbated by the fact that most US drivers are not cyclists. Saksa doesn’t really go into this in depth, but I agree with him that it allows drivers to “other” cyclists, seeing them as people with very different values and motivations despite the fact that most adult cyclists are also drivers and despite the fact that drivers and cyclists tend to want the same things out of their road design. It also adds to an ignorance of bike law. I cannot even begin to tell you the number of drivers who have screamed at me, “GET ON THE SIDEWALK!” Because of the nature of these interactions, I’m never able to patiently explain the laws of the road to the person driving the 2-ton death machine, so instead I just decide to confuse them by shouting back, “NO, YOU GET ON THE SIDEWALK!”
But when so many of our drivers don’t even know what the law is, we can’t really say that they’re basing their opinion of all cyclists on witnessing a few cyclists “breaking the law.” They may very well have witnessed a cyclist following the law, but they don’t know it because as non-cycling drivers, they feel entitled to the road. Consider that you (or at least I) don’t hear drivers complain about pedestrians breaking the law nearly as often, despite the fact that pedestrians jaywalk all the damned time. Nearly all drivers are also pedestrians, so they are more likely to relate to them and give them the benefit of the doubt.
Drivers who aren’t cyclists also have a limited view of how often drivers break the law: rolling through stop signs, turning illegally at red lights, speeding, passing too closely, turning without signaling, pulling in and out of driveways without looking – as a cyclist, I see all that many times a day and I learn to take evasive action in order to not be killed. Yet every discussion of bikes online invariably degrades to drivers crying about cyclists on their 25lb bikes breaking the law, with nary a word about drivers in their 6,000lb SUVs.
There’s also the problem of impatience. I’ve had many close calls from cars, trucks, and vans gunning it to pass me (usually just to get to that red light a little faster) with less than twelve inches of clearance. Go ahead and hold up a ruler, and tell me if you’d feel safe with a car passing you that closely – especially when you’re on a bike that could at any second blow a tire and send you under the wheels of a passing car. Judging from what I’ve had drivers tell me (or, shout at me), many drivers hate cyclists simply because they feel entitled to get to Target within 10 minutes. Going 20-30 miles per hour for a few minutes is simply torture for them.
We can see how well my anecdotes stack up to actual research done on drivers and cyclists. An impressively comprehensive study of cyclist and driver attitudes and behaviors was undertaken by the Department of Transport in Victoria, Australia, in 2010. You can read the whole thing here. In it, they identified several key points of tension between drivers and cyclists which led to accidents and unsafe behavior: impatience (both drivers experiencing road rage and cyclists weaving in and out of cars), fear (of hitting something/being hit), expectation (mostly cyclists, expecting to experience fear on the road), and lack of awareness on the part of drivers (who were both unaware of cyclists/their environment and unaware of how aware cyclists are).
This kind of research gives us a huge benefit – it allows us to focus on solving the problems that lead to accidents. Unlike the overly simplistic affect heuristic hypothesis, these factors are relatively easily identifiable and solvable. More bike lanes that completely separate bikes and cars will significantly lessen the amount of fear on both sides and remove cyclists from the congestion that leads to angry, overly aggressive drivers. Educational efforts can inform drivers and help them be more aware of cyclists.
Those solutions also explain why an increase in cyclists on the road may be accompanied by a decrease in fatalities. Cities and towns will install more bike lanes if more people are demanding them and using them, and on the flip side, more bike lanes encourages more people to get on their bikes. People bike more when biking is safer. An increase in the number of cyclists on the road will also increase visibility and total awareness of cyclists. Plus, that increase means that more drivers are now cycling, which means there are more drivers who likely understand the law and how to safely share the road with cyclists.
Doesn’t that make more sense than Saksa’s hypothesis of “more cyclists on the road means fewer aggressive cyclists?”
To add another anecdote to the mix, when I biked in Copenhagen I noticed that very few cyclists ran red lights or broke the law in other ways. I suspect this is because they have their own lanes, their own stoplights, and laws that make it clear that they belong on the road just as much as cars. When you’re no longer surrounded by people in cars breaking the law and putting your life in danger, you have no need to bike aggressively to protect yourself and you no longer feel like you’re outside the system. So, you follow the law. With that in mind, I do think there is some truth to the idea that having more cyclists on the road can eventually lead to fewer cyclists breaking the law.
Obviously, I could continue to go on about this topic but I really prefer to not write more than the article I’m responding to. Plus, it’s a beautiful day out and I’d like to go for a ride.
Featured image is me on a bike, taken by Tim Buchanan for the Skepticon IV calendar. Relevant! Hey, I may not be big on calendars but I like good photography and great causes!
Thanks to Amanda Marcotte for tweeting the Slate article yesterday and Madfishmonger for sending it in today.