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Drivers’ antagonism toward cyclists termed ‘classic prejudiced behavior’

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.

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.
MinnPost file photo by Steve Berg

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.

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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.”

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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.

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