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Drivers’ antagonism toward cyclists termed ‘classic prejudiced behavior’

MinnPost file photo by Steve Berg
Research suggests that the out-of-proportion antagonism directed at cyclists will only abate when the numbers of cyclists on the road increases to some tipping point.

The Guardian ran an article on Wednesday about how the building of segregated bike lanes in London, Bristol and other British cities has shifted “the tone of the debate around cycling,” making it more “polarised and poisonous than ever.”

Recently, there have been several nasty incidents of cycling sabotage in Britain. Large tacks have been strewn across bike paths, causing flat tires and crashes.

Even more worrisome are the wires and fishing line that have been found strung — sometimes at neck level — between trees on woodland cycling paths.

Advantages outweigh perils

So far, these incidents remain rare, and they have not resulted in serious injuries. The main danger to cyclists  — both in Britain and here in the United States — is being hit by cars and other motor vehicles.

Yet, despite that danger, cycling “is both far safer than many people think — numerous studies have shown it is many times more likely to lengthen a lifespan through increased exercise than shorten it,” writes Guardian reporter Peter Walker.

As I noted here last year, European researchers have shown that even when factoring in exposure to air pollution and accidents, the positive health effects of cycling — specifically, the reduction in the overall burden of disease, such as cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes — are significant. Indeed, in Copenhagen, commuting to work by bicycle is associated with about a 40 percent reduction in the risk of premature death.

Cycling also reduces health-care costs — about $1,800 for each person who commutes at least three miles to work by bike, according to French researchers.

That’s a benefit to all of us, whether we cycle or not.

Unexplained anger

Still, although cycling is much healthier — both for our health and our pocketbooks — than many people realize, it’s also much more perilous than it needs to be, as Walker stresses in his article.

And a big reason for that has to do with the remarkable level of anger that many people harbor toward cyclists, both in Britain and in the United States.

Anger that, frankly, isn’t explained by the occasional bad behavior of a cyclist who, say, weaves between traffic or doesn’t stop at a red light.

As Walker points out, cyclists are rarely to blame for bike-car accidents. “An analysis of police statistics found a failure to stop at a red light or stop sign was a factor in just 2% of serious adult cycling incidents,” he writes. “[I]n contrast, drivers were deemed solely to blame about two-thirds of the time.”

“The average person on a bike is arguably no more likely to break a law then their peer in a car,” Walker adds. “However, when they do so it’s more obvious, less normalised. People notice a cyclist pedalling through a red light, whereas speeding — which 80% of drivers admit to doing regularly — is often ignored, despite the immeasurably greater human cost this causes.”

A sociological perspective

So, what does explain the intense hatred (and, yes, it often seems to reach that level) that many people freely express toward cyclists? Why are they, in Walker’s words, “demonised equally as both anarchic lawbreakers and smug, humourless killjoys, sausage thighs squeezed into unsightly DayGlo Lycra”?

Here’s the perspective that a sociologist gave him:

Rachel Aldred, a Westminster University sociologist who studies transport issues, argues that British cyclists suffer because, unlike in countries such as the Netherlands and Denmark, bikes are seen as frivolous, compared with the serious, adult business of driving. She says: “It’s as if you’re doing something you shouldn’t be doing on the roads, almost like you’re playing in the street and getting in the way of the traffic, like you’re a child. There’s also this dual way you can be stigmatised as a cyclist — it was historically seen as something for people with no choice, but now it’s seen as something for people who have a choice. It’s a leisure or play thing that they shouldn’t be doing in this inappropriate place.”

Aldred has also studied the environment cyclists face on the road, and her findings are alarming. In a pioneering paper published this month she finds cyclists experience on average one “very scary” incident involving another road user every week. Female riders suffer disproportionately more, thought to be because drivers are less patient with their slower average speeds.

‘Textbook prejudice’

A psychologist offered Walker yet another perspective:

The debate around cycling occasionally bears comparison with the treatment of so-called societal outgroups, according to Dr. Ian Walker, a psychologist at Bath University. One of his experiments to research attitudes towards cyclists involved riding around his home town wearing a long brunette wig with an electronic distance gauge attached to his bike, to see whether drivers gave female cyclists more overtaking space than men. They did, even when the “woman” was 6 ft tall and, for the drivers who happened to look in their rearview mirror, surprisingly hairy.

“What you see in discourses about cycling is the absolute classic 1960s and 1970s social psychology of prejudice,” he explains. “It’s exactly those things that used to be done about minority ethnic groups and so on — the overgeneralisation of negative traits, under-representation of negative behaviours by one’s own group, that kind of thing. It’s just textbook prejudiced behaviour.”

Such research suggests that the out-of-proportion antagonism directed at cyclists will only abate when the numbers of cyclists on the road (or, better yet, on dedicated cycling paths) increases to some tipping point, and all those angry drivers realize that the cyclists whose lives they’re imperiling are their family members, friends and neighbors.

Let’s hope that time comes soon.

You can read Walker’s article on the Guardian’s website.

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Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 07/02/2015 - 10:59 am.

    For me…

    …this is about vulnerability. As a driver, I pay attention to what’s around me, including other vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians – the military term, I believe, is “situational awareness” – and I’m acutely aware that a cyclist has, literally, no protection against an automobile or truck. I make a conscious effort to give cyclists ample room. I’m usually on the side of the cyclist in “on-street” situations. No doubt the author of the Guardian article is correct in describing the hostility of automobile drivers to cyclists as a classic example of prejudice.

    My hostility toward cyclists – and on occasion, I have some – is reserved for when I’m a pedestrian. In that situation, it’s the pedestrian who’s more at risk, at least in relative terms. After hundreds of encounters, for example, I can still count on one hand the number of times a cyclist approaching from behind me has given me any sort of warning at all, much less the “official” notice of “on you left,” or “on your right.” The other hundreds of times, the cyclist has simply zipped past me without saying a word. That’s dangerous, even foolhardy, for both of us.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/02/2015 - 05:16 pm.

      Say Hi Next Time

      Thanks for giving me a little extra space, Ray.

    • Submitted by Carrie Anderson on 07/08/2015 - 09:11 am.

      Agreed.

      I wish there was as much concern for pedestrians as there is for car drivers and bicyclists. The construction on 35E is causing heavier traffic on our residential street, and car drivers are unwilling to stop when I step onto a crosswalk. While riding around the lakes and along Minnehaha in Minneapolis in the late 1980s, I was always hearing, and saying, “on your left!” Now when I walk my dog on the Gateway trail in St. Paul, I rarely hear anything at all. I do try to maintain awareness, but it’s not always possible, and silently speeding by puts both me and the cyclist (and my dog) at risk for injury.

  2. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/02/2015 - 11:32 am.

    It could be worse than tacks

    I remember about 10 years ago someone was reaching out of the passenger’s side window of a vehicle and slashing bicyclists’ buttocks with a box cutter as they passed the bicyclist. Ouch. Gives me the willies just thinking about it.

  3. Submitted by Diane Lindgren on 07/02/2015 - 12:27 pm.

    Attention to walkers too

    I’m all for encouraging bike riding with lanes and paths. But as a frequent walker I often feel in peril at many corner crossings. Cars rarely stop unless there is a stop sign. It would make street crossing much less nerve racking if more cross walks were painted on some of the busier streets in Minneapolis.

  4. Submitted by Kay Kolazlak on 07/02/2015 - 07:01 pm.

    Respect for all.

    I am a biker. I live with a family of bikers. The biking possibilities in the cities makes me very joyful! I love me some midtown greenway. I’m glad that we have such great amenities living here.

    However, I have seen cyclists act like complete riotous jerks in the name of their sport. Last year driving down a busy city street during rush hour with a bike lane there was a road biker jumping stoplights and cycling very aggressively. At some point we passed him in our vehicle, never getting anywhere near him and staying well clear of the bike lane. However, we could not give him the ENTIRE lane – bike and car. It was rush hour and bumper to bumper. At the next stop light, he pulled up to our car and started pounding on our door swearing at us in front of our kids that we didn’t give him a full 5 feet. I will also say, this rider had much lower traffic options both north and south of this route within blocks. When we’re all trying to drive rush hour, let’s have some grace. This is a road I bike regularly and I’ve never had any kind of an issue with cars and the bike lane anyway. It’s one of the wider style bike lanes in Minneapolis.

    Another incident involved a biker downtown Minneapolis not wanting to put his foot down at a stop light, weaving between cars, and grabbing a door handle. The light changed, the biker pulled the door open of an SUV, and the SUV drove then down the road with his door flapping. Thanks biker.

    Within the past week a biker came screaming through a red light downtown Minneapolis as I had a green light. I see this ALL the time. We all need to honor stop lights. They’re not optional for anyone. Putting your foot down is ok. Last night a biker not wanting to put his foot down on a Nice Ride at a stop light wove back and forth through both sides of the street, putting himself at risk if someone wanted to make a right hand turn.

    These are just a few examples of the kinds of things I’ve seen. And FTR, it always seems to be male bikers cycling more aggressively to the last point. So honestly, I can see why people might a bad taste in their mouth about bikers. That is no excuse not to give leeway to the average biker of course, but there should be respect going both ways. We’re sharing the roads.

  5. Submitted by Bill Davidson on 07/03/2015 - 01:27 am.

    Here’s an idea.

    Maybe all of these people who hate bicyclists so much could repeat driver’s education and learn how to change lanes to pass? They will change lanes to pass without complaint for ANYTHING as long as it isn’t a bicycle. Bicycles are the one thing that they can’t move over to pass. It’s bigotry, plain and simple. They fundamentally cannot accept that bicyclists have a right to be on the road. That’s where all of the anger and hate comes from. It’s pure ignorance, pure territorialism, pure selfishness and pure self entitlement.

  6. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/03/2015 - 11:29 am.

    I have a problem extrapolating from a British article on British bike-car problems, when that article cites figures that contradict what Minneapolis figures indicate. On bike-car accidents in Minneapolis, the blame is about half on the biker, half on the motor vehicle driver, not the dinky biker-responsibility percentage Mr. Walker provides. When I saw that tiny figure, I knew I was in an anti-car diatribe zone.

    Yes, half the time it’s the biker’s fault in our fair city, according to bike studies done by Minneapolis. And commenters above prove that my personal experience, of rampant biker refusal to obey traffic rules, is not unique here in Minnesota. I don’t think our bikers are necessarily wilder than the British bikers. It’s that we actually do counting studies.

    It’s not drivers’ “hatred” of bikes. Mostly, it’s fear of bikers causing us to harm them, or ourselves (how, for example, does one avoid a biker by changing lanes into oncoming traffic during rush hour? Can we be reasonable in our arguments here?).

    • Submitted by Bill Davidson on 07/03/2015 - 11:45 pm.

      What about the other half.

      You say that half are the fault of the bicyclist. That means that half are the fault of the motorists.

      Connie Sulivan wrote: “how, for example, does one avoid a biker by changing lanes into oncoming traffic during rush hour?”

      If you can’t safely move into the oncoming lane to pass then you slow down and wait until you can or until the bicyclist can find a safe place to turn out. It’s not rocket science. It’s basic driving 101. It’s what you would do if there was a tractor in your way. It’s no different when it’s a bicycle. You don’t have to pass when it’s not safe to do so. How is this not obvious? I’m amazed that you even asked the question.

      I’ve seen rather wide variance in studies that show fault. Most run close to 50-50 with a slight tendency to find motorists at fault more. Some are severely lopsided showing motorists at fault more. A small percentage even find bicyclists at fault more but all of those that I’ve seen it’s only been by a little bit and the study was done by police, who usually don’t really understand bicycle-car collisions or bicycle related law very well and are not great at properly assessing fault in such collisions.

      The people who hate bicyclists tend to do so because they fundamentally do not accept that bicyclists have a right to travel on the road. Pretty much everything else they say is just excuses to rationalize their hatred. A lot of it is based in their lack of understanding of the rights of bicyclists and the rules of the road regarding bicyclists.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/05/2015 - 08:18 am.

        50% is…. half… so what?

        We’re talking about accidents here, not assaults with cars. Yes, there are angry drivers who hate cyclists but they are very small in number, again we’re talking about accidents, not driver’s who are deliberately running over cyclists.

        Drivers are 100% at fault for all accidents with other drivers, what’s the point? Would you rather have car drivers be 90% responsible for accidents with bicycles? Or maybe you think it would be better of drivers were only responsible for 10% of the accidents? Whatever, where are you going with that?

        The point is we have to share roads and streets and safety is a shared responsibility. The more you make it about staking out and defending territory the more you increase the antagonism and that’s not a battle a person on a bicycle can win against a car or truck, the physics just aren’t on the cyclists side.

        YOUR safety isn’t about telling other people how to drive. Sure, drivers have options, but you’re never going to control what they do. Other people on the road are just trying to get somewhere, they’re not organizing their lives around you and your bicycle. Sure drivers can slow down and change lanes whatever whatever but the fact is always going to be that some will and some won’t, you just have to deal with that as best you can. It’s no different when you’re driving a car why would it be different when you’re on a bicycle?

        Most of this will sort out as everyone get’s more accustomed to the new mix of traffic, we’ve seen a huge increase of bicycle traffic in the last couple of decades and it’s going to take some time for everyone to get used to it. New and better bicycle infrastructure, lanes, etc. will help.

        • Submitted by Bill Davidson on 07/05/2015 - 11:34 pm.

          I think you missed my point.

          The post I was responding to was focused on bicycle misbehavior and talking about them being found at fault half the time. 50-50 is actually the expected number given an equal level of incompetence among bicyclists and motorists but she was exclusively concerned with the behavior of bicyclists. It’s bigotry plain and simple.

          As for dealing with bad motorists, I’m actually pretty good at that. I’m a League of American Bicyclists Certified Safety Instructor and I’ve also studied bike safety from Cycling Savvy, Cyclecraft, Effective Cycling, Bicycling Street Smarts and others. I have 6 figure mileage experience riding on the roads since 1971. I know how to ride defensively to compensate for most motorist misbehavior.

    • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/03/2015 - 11:47 pm.

      Slow Down

      If you’re really concerned about hitting bikers in rush hour, then the solution is simple: just slow down. Chances are there will be an opportunity to pass soon and you’ll be on your way, only slowed down by twenty seconds or so.

      And if you really want to work towards a solution, support separated lanes for bikes. That way you will be minimally slowed in your hurry to get to your destination and don’t have to worry about running over some poor old soul on a bicycle.

      As for the study cited in the article, it is indeed accurate. If you read it carefully you’ll see it says “An analysis of police statistics found a failure to stop at a red light or stop sign was a factor in just 2% of serious adult cycling incidents.” That isn’t the same as saying bikes are never to blame or cars are to blame 98% of the time, but rather when they looked at instances where the bike didn’t stop, it was the primary factor in just 2% of the accidents. Considering that many people who complain about bikers grouch that they don’t stop at lights, this demonstrates that it’s a relatively minor issue as far as accidents go.

      The study does state, however, that cars are primarily to blame for 2/3 of the accidents. If I recall correctly, that’s keeping in line with the Minnesota study, which found that cars were primarily (but not solely) to blame for 67% of accidents in Minneapolis. I did a couple of searches of MinnPost and couldn’t pull up the article citing the study. Maybe someone with better search skills than me can find it and repost it here.

  7. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 07/03/2015 - 11:34 pm.

    Spot On Study

    A couple of the postings above demonstrate precisely the point of this article: namely that bikes are blamed for infractions that drivers do on a regular–and frequent–basis. Someone spotted a biker jumping lights *last year* and that’s the thing that stands out in her mind. You could stand at a stoplight at rush hour and in five minutes count dozens of cars who run red lights. And yet this doesn’t even get a passing mention in her post.

    Why is this? Because bikers are seen as interlopers on the road, whereas cars are a ‘legitimate’ form of transportation. The bikes shouldn’t be there in the first place, so they get extra scrutiny. They’re still unusual and stand out, getting much more attention from drivers even if there are other things going on in the area.

    Cars, on the other hand, are commonplace. They’re all around you on the road and we see their infractions not on a yearly or even daily basis, but constantly. People run stop lights, stop signs, speed, don’t signal lane changes, and it all gets a collective yawn. Like people who wear too much perfume, they don’t even notice their own odor. They’ve become used to it. But heaven forbid someone should walk by with cologne on that they don’t approve of.

    I think everyone can agree that cars are much more dangerous than a biker is. It’s a simple matter of physics: F=MA or Force equals Mass time Acceleration. A 200 pound biker running a red light at 15 MPH isn’t going to have the same impact as a 2200 pound car at the same speed. You’re looking at 18N for the bike and 199N for the car, a factor of over ten. One might hurt your–maybe even break some bones. The other one will only hurt you–if you’re lucky. And if you’re not lucky, then you’ve bought some prime agricultural real estate.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 07/04/2015 - 10:59 am.

    Hmmm.

    I also have a little trouble with extrapolating from a study done in England, we have a very different car culture here in the US. The use of police records may not be the best unless you train police in a given city to probe for the right kind of information, but “investigating” the cause of cycling accidents is probably not a big priority for police in any city of any size. For instance someone can be at “fault” for an accident in a lot of way other than running light or disobeying traffic laws.

    We also had a cycling culture develop here in the 90s that promoted bike driving or vehicular riding, that cycling style actually promoted the notion that a cyclist should “own” the street and challenge other traffic for space instead of trying to stay out of traffic or ride to the right. I’m not sure how strong that culture took hold in England.

    There definitely is prejudice, and I think most of the prejudice is against cyclists, but it does go both ways.

    I know drivers get frustrated when they have to drive slowly in a single lane because a cyclists is on the street instead of a perfectly good bike path ten feet or fewer away. Sometimes cyclists forget that they may be in a not passing zone so “changing lanes” isn’t an option for a auto. And remember cars as supposed to pass no closer than three feet when the pass a cyclists so on some of the parkways or narrow city streets that’s not possible without actually driving in the oncoming lane. And of course in busy traffic changing lanes to get round a cyclist might be a safe option for a driver.

    The main thing from a safety perspective is for cyclists, as the more vulnerable of the travelers, to be aware of the antagonism some drivers carry around and ride accordingly. You have a right to be on the street but maybe a different less crowded street is a better option. And don’t ride like a jerk and practice good situational awareness especially when approaching or entering intersections of any kind. You can complain about drivers, and those complaints may be perfectly legit, but you’re not going to control other driver’s behavior on a bicycle any more than you can in a car so you have to do what YOU can do to maximize your safety. Yes, cars can slow down on occasion but so can cyclists, I think the most frequent issue I see with fellow cyclists is that they are going too fast for the conditions and don’t want to slow down.

    As for pedestrians, a cyclists always has to give them space and issue audible warnings when necessary. I ride a lot on the trails and frankly, pedestrians are my biggest hazard, I rarely have close calls with cars. Pedestrians are simply not accustomed to sharing trials, they don’t think THEY need to be aware, they can be very unpredictable, they assume everyone else will watch out for them because they ALWAYS have the right of way… technically.

    But really, all of this stuff will shake out eventually as everyone gets used to the new mix of traffic. The article is spot on when it suggests that eventually we’ll reach a tipping point of sorts. And absolutely in meantime we should be building better and safer infrastructure.

  9. Submitted by Kathy Long on 07/07/2015 - 12:07 am.

    Well done

    Very interesting article, Susan. I too appreciate the tipping point reference. Unfortunately I don’t think we’re going to see it anytime soon, particularly since as our cities become more and more populated it breeds an “every man for himself” mentality, and unselfish concern for others seems to take a backseat. (But it is the compassion for family and friends that cyclist Sharon Williams appeals to in this article: http://www.elialaw.com/blog/bicycle-accident/what-cyclists-want-drivers-to-know/)

    I think the real answer is to give cyclists a space of their own and good news is many cities throughout the United States are looking into ways to improve cycling infrastructures and pathways. The big challenge there is to get drivers to vote them into city and county budgets since they have “textbook predjudice.” On the other hand, getting cyclists off roads and onto their own paths might be the segregation drivers could get behind.

  10. Submitted by Randall Poffo on 07/09/2015 - 08:57 pm.

    I think one thing needs to be said above all.

    The right to travel on public roads is not a sliding scale. In other words…your right to travel does not increase with the size of your vehicle.

    Everyone has equal right to the road and you must yield to anyone who is in front of you. Just because your car is bigger, heavier, and faster, doesn’t mean other smaller and slower road users have less right to be there. That’s the law…don’t like it, then don’t drive a car. Nobody is forcing anyone to get in a car.

    Having said that, I find some of these comments prove the point of the article perfectly. Cyclists are marginalized and vilified. Anytime someone says…’well, you have the right to be there, but you shouldn’t. You shouldn’t have been there. You know that road is dangerous.’ Folks, that’s victim blaming. The commenter that said “The main thing from a safety perspective is for cyclists, as the more vulnerable of the travelers, to be aware of the antagonism some drivers carry around and ride accordingly. You have a right to be on the street but maybe a different less crowded street is a better option.”

    How do you think that argument sounds if we apply it to situations where women have been harassed by men? “The main thing for safety perspective for women, to be aware of aggressive men, and act accordingly, you have the right to go out with your friends, but maybe go to see the symphony instead…of a club”

    It’s a bullcrap way of placing blame on the victim and it shouldn’t be tolerated. Men shouldn’t treat women badly, period. End of discussion. Women should be able to go anywhere they want without being harassed. And likewise, people in cars shouldn’t treat cyclists badly, period. Cyclists should feel safe riding on any public street because people in cars should act civilized towards them.

    I can’t count the number of times I’ve had 4000 lb vehicle, piloted by an angry driver, administer a ‘punish pass’ to me, coming within inches of my handlebar. In what universe do we live in that it’s deemed ok to risk another humans life to prove a point? By using a 4000lb hunk of steel as a method of ‘teaching them a lesson’ (who, ironically, was not in the wrong, and needed no lesson being taught)?

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