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Do drivers consider cyclists to be fully human?

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Cyclists were rated less than 100 percent human on the “ascent of man” scales by 55 percent of the non-cyclists in the study.

More than half of car drivers look at cyclists as not being completely human, according to a new study from Australian researchers.

That dehumanization of cyclists may explain why some drivers direct hostility and aggression — often dangerously — at cyclists, the researchers say.

“When you don’t think someone is ‘fully’ human, it’s easier to justify hatred or aggression towards them,” said lead author Alexa Delbosc who teaches transport studies at Monash University in Melbourne, in a released statement.

“This can set up an escalating cycle of resentment,” she added. “If cyclists feel dehumanized by other road users, they may be more likely to act out against motorists, feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy that further fuels dehumanization against them.”

As Delbosc and her colleagues point out in their paper, “dehumanization is sometimes thought to occur only in extreme contexts such as war and genocide, [but] it can refer to any situation where people are seen or treated as if they are less than fully human. Subtle forms of it can be observed in everyday life, especially in perceptions of members of devalued groups.”

“On-road cyclists may be one such group,” the researchers add. “[T]hey look and act differently to typical ‘humans,’ they move in a mechanical way, and their faces are not often seen by motorists, blocking empathic responses that might humanize them.”

Apes and insects

For the study, Delbosc and her colleagues surveyed 442 Australians about their attitudes toward cyclists. Almost half (45 percent) of the study’s participants identified themselves as non-cyclists (defined in the study as anyone who had not cycled within the past year).

As part of the survey, the participants were randomly presented with one of two  “ascent of man” scales. Half were shown an “ape scale,” an image depicting human evolution from apes (based on the iconic “March of Progress” illustration from the 1960s). This scale is widely used by social psychologists to measure people’s tendency to engage in the dehumanization of  “others,” particularly racial, ethnic and religious minorities. People are show the image and then asked to use a slider underneath it to rank where they feel various groups (“Americans,” “Muslims,” “Mexican immigrants”) fall on the scale in relationship to each other.

Cockroach to human scale developed for the study.
Monash University
Cockroach to human scale developed for the study.
The other participants in the current study were shown an “insect scale,” which was specially developed by the study’s authors. It is similar to the ape scale, but depicts the stages of evolution from cockroach to human.

The insect scale was used, say the study’s authors, because “many informal slurs against cyclists compare them to ‘mosquitoes’ or ‘cockroaches.’”

Each scale was accompanied by the following instruction: “Some people believe that people can vary in how human-like they seem. According to this view, some people seem highly evolved whereas others seem no different than lower animals. Using the image below as a guide, indicate by marking on the line below how evolved you consider the average cyclist to be.”

The participants in both groups were also asked whether or not they agreed (on a scale of 1 to 5) with a list of statements about cyclists, such as “Many cyclists on the road have not learned to ride properly,” “Drivers are not trained to look out for cyclists,” and “It is very frustrating sharing the road with cyclists.”

Finally, the participants were asked to indicate whether they had ever acted aggressively toward cyclists, including deliberately using their car to cut them off on the road or throwing an object at a cyclist.

Key findings

Cyclists were rated less than 100 percent human on the “ascent of man” scales by 55 percent of the non-cyclists in the study. (The researchers combined the results of the two scales because the findings showed no statistically significant difference in their ratings.)

Interestingly, almost a third (30 percent) of the cyclists also rated cyclists as not being completely human.

“Perhaps these ‘dehumanising cyclists’ are imagining a different sub-group of cyclists who behave more animalistically than themselves,” the study’s authors write.

The average rating for cyclists from all the study’s participants was 82 out of 100. As the study’s authors point out, that rating is lower (more dehumanizing) than Americans rated Europeans, Japanese, Australians, Mexican immigrants and East Asians in one study, but higher than they rated Arabs and Muslims.

The study also found that acts of aggression toward cyclists are not uncommon. Seventeen percent of the non-cyclists (8 percent of the cyclists) reported they had used their car to deliberately block a cyclist, for example, and 11 percent of the non-cyclists (5 percent of cyclists) said they had deliberately driven a car close to a cyclist.

A starting place

The study comes with plenty of caveats. Most notably, its participants were all Australian. Their attitudes toward cyclists may not be representative of attitudes in other countries, including here in the U.S.

Indeed, the participants of this study, who skewed male, high-income and young, were not even demographically representative of all Australians, as the authors of the study readily acknowledge. That’s because this was a pilot study — one done to see if more research on this topic is warranted.

It would seem, at least from these results, that more study is needed. Negative attitudes toward cyclists aren’t a trifling matter, given that they have the potential to lead to aggressive — and dangerous — incidents on the road.

Cycling-related deaths are on the rise in United States, up 25 percent since 2010.

The authors of the current study say they would like to investigate how to humanize cyclists to reduce anti-cyclist aggression. They note that because of mandatory helmet laws, the hair and faces of cyclists are obscured, perhaps contributing to the dehumanizing beliefs found in this pilot study. In addition, the uniform-like Lycra and fitness gear that many cyclists wear may be contributing to a feeling among the broader public that cyclists are “others.”

“Ultimately we want to understand this process so we can do a better job at putting a human face to people who ride bikes, so that hopefully we can help put a stop to the abuse,” said Delbosc.

One of her co-authors, Narelle Haworth, who is director of the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety at the Queensland University of Technology, believes throwing out the term “cyclist” would be a good way to start.

“Let’s talk about people who ride bikes rather than cyclists because that’s the first step towards getting rid of this dehumanization,” she said.

FMI: The study was published in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour. You’ll find an abstract of the study on the journal’s website, but the full study is behind a paywall.

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Comments (16)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 03/29/2019 - 09:34 am.

    This seems like a pretty overly deep dive to me. I walk more than I bike but I have occasional trouble with drivers with both activities. They resent us sharing the space because we move slower and get in their way. But I also see drivers who are attentive and polite. My theory, not backed up by a large research study, is that the rudest drivers are the most sedentary. They don’t get why we are out there exercising. A psychological deep dive might reveal that they feel guilt over their own laziness and the harm to their health. Saying they dehumanize me because I have on a helmet seems like a stretch. Drivers are also easy to dehumanize, hidden behind their opaque windshields and machinery. Drive the speed limit in the left lane on a freeway in the rush hour someday and you will see how drivers “dehumanize” each other.

    • Submitted by Elisa Wright on 03/29/2019 - 11:28 am.

      I agree. Drivers dehumanize each other. We would never treat each other this way to each others’ face. We see cars, not humans. Also, the sample population was skewed young, male with higher incomes. I imagine, they pay higher rates in car insurance for a reason.

      As for the cyclists, people in cars might see the bicycles as cars that don’t behave typically. There are people on bicycles who ignore traffic lights or suddenly drive out in front of cars crossing busy intersections. I don’t think this is typical behavior, but it can be disconcerting when it happens. After all, the cyclists probably dehumanize people in cars.

      Perhaps we should study Germany. They have special bike lanes that are apart from the street and the sidewalk. Bicycles have bells to let you know when they’re coming. There, it is more a mode of transportation than a sport.

  2. Submitted by John N. Finn on 03/29/2019 - 09:41 am.

    “The study comes with plenty of caveats. Most notably, its participants were all Australian.”

    Well, that explains a lot. March of Progress indeed.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 03/29/2019 - 10:22 am.

    (The researchers combined the results of the two scales because the findings showed no statistically significant difference in their ratings.)

    The fact that these researchers combined insignificant data sets rather than throwing them out is the biggest caveat we see here. Typically you throw out insignificant data, you don’t add it to other data to make it “significant”. This isn’t a meta-analysis.

    Dehumanization is certainly a significant phenomena when people categorize enemies, but cyclist and drivers aren’t “enemies”. As frustrating as driving can be, it’s not combat. It’s more likely that this survey just picked up ordinary resentments, not actuall beliefs that cyclists are subhuman. There’s a difference between calling someone a cockroach and actually believing they are in fact a cockroach, most people don’t take such statements literally. It’s not surprising that a “scale” based on a metaphor failed to produce statistical significance. The validity of this “scale” needs to be examined.

    It’s likely that drivers that hit and kill cyclists simply tend to be more aggressive drivers in general. They’d probably tell you that other drivers all cockroaches as well if you asked them. This isn’t the “cause” of fatal collisions. The difference is that the collisions such drivers have with cyclists cause more fatality and injury. A fender bender in a car can be a fatal collision with a cyclist.

    At it turns out the biggest factor contributing to car-cyclist collisions is proximity. Them more we separate cycling traffic from other traffic the lower the collision rates.

    This seems like common sense but back in the early 90s a cycling “philosophy” based on academic fraud took hold in a serious way here in the US. It’s called “Vehicular cycling” or “Bike Driving” and it advocated driving bicycles into and among traffic. The fraud centered around alleged research “findings” that riding on bike paths was more dangerous for cyclists than riding on the streets among cars and trucks. Unfortunately it was over a decade before anyone got round to trying to duplicate these research “findings” and those attempts revealed that the research was garbage. This “philosophy” may have gotten thousands of American cyclists injured or killed because it added aggressive cycling to the already aggressive vehicle drivers on the streets at a time when the numbers of both were increasing dramatically. The idea that cyclists are safer when they go out and compete for space on the streets is still rather strong in some sectors.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/29/2019 - 10:23 am.

    It’s certainly a worthwhile question to investigate, especially given rising accident and injury rates. Among my several criticisms of metro drivers is that so many seem totally oblivious to their surroundings except for that narrow tunnel directly ahead of them.

    There’s also a related issue. As a daily walker on paved paths, often intended for shared use with bicycle riders, I’ve often wondered if a similar question might also be asked: “Do cyclists consider pedestrians to be fully human?” Coming up on my 10th anniversary of Twin Cities residence, over the course of thousands of encounters with bike riders while I was a pedestrian using those paved paths, I can still count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve gotten some sort of audible warning from a bike rider approaching me from the rear.

    Automobile drivers are not the only ones oblivious, or even hostile, to others using some other mode of transit.

    • Submitted by Henk Tobias on 03/29/2019 - 11:13 am.

      I’ve spent decades biking the trails in Minneapolis. I used to say on your left to alert people to my presence. After a couple incidents where startled pedestrians have lept into my path and caused me to crash, I’ve mostly stopped doing that. Inattention to one’s surroundings seems to me to be a big problem. Pedestrians will walk down the middle of the bike path, totally oblivious, bikers will speed along shared paths oblivious to the angst they cause pedestrians, distracted drivers veer into bike lanes, make turns in front of bikers. We all have our issues and we all share responsibility to make sure we aren’t part of the problem.

      I don’t have facts to back this up, but having been biking in the city for the last 25 years, I say things are much better than they were.

      • Submitted by ian wade on 03/29/2019 - 02:45 pm.

        Henk and Ray are spot on. I’ll distill it down even further. If you’re out in public, be prepared to deal with insensitive, myopic jerks, whether they be on foot, on a bicycle or in a car.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/01/2019 - 09:16 am.

        I likewise have cycling for decades and have found that pedestrians are my most durable and predictable hazard. I’ve equipped all of my bikes with bells and launched into a Quixotic mission of introducing bells as audible warnings.

    • Submitted by Solly Johnson on 03/29/2019 - 07:44 pm.

      To expand on Ray’s comment, for decades I have jogged and walked around the lakes and on paths in Minneapolis. Of course, I have had to cross streets and have always used marked intersections, most with signs showing that pedestrians will be crossing. Often cars will stop and allow me to cross, but I have never had a bicyclist stop, although they are supposed to follow the same regulations as motorists.

      • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 03/30/2019 - 11:43 am.

        Ah, I’m going to stick for cyclists here, using a form of the Idaho Stop.

        It is easier for motorists and walkers to get started from a dead stop than a biker (bikers ride bikes, not motorcycles). It’s also easier for a walker to slow but not stop than a biker; a biker must maintain a minimum speed to stay upright.

        Last summer, this old guy struggled biking up a steep hill, and by the time I reached the top, an intersection, another old guy was waiting to cross the street. Wanting to preserve the little bit of forward momentum I had worked so hard for, I eased through. He was aghast I didn’t stop for him. He could have easily re-routed himself toward my tail end, making a small diversion in his path but still moving forward.

        All situations are different. I’d treat a Mom and a toddler differently than a single able bodies adult. Another adult and I should easily be able to make eye contact and work it out, one of us swerving around the other.

  5. Submitted by Kurt Anderson on 03/29/2019 - 11:49 am.

    I heard a talk by a lawyer who represents injured cyclists. He recounted a case in which he knew, the day it went to the jury, that he was going to lose it. How did he know? On the way to the courthouse, in a car, he stopped at a red light. It was what he called the “whoosh” factor — a cyclist blurred past him against the light and through the intersection.
    I have my own long history of commuting via multiple modes — mostly transit but also car and (before my knees and back plus increased risk told me to stop) bicycle. I guess we all need to exercise more prudence and patience.

  6. Submitted by Anton Schieffer on 03/29/2019 - 01:01 pm.

    When you spend time so much time behind a windshield, it’s “natural” to treat everything on the road as some sort of obstacle. I know plenty of calm, rational people that turn into unrepentant jerks when they get behind the wheel.

    We need to start treating our ongoing devotion to car culture as a mental health issue. How about 15 minutes of therapy or implicit bias education every time you fill up your tank? And yes, we can pay for that with a gas tax.

  7. Submitted by chuck holtman on 03/29/2019 - 03:16 pm.

    When I say that someone is not fully human, I mean that in a good way.

  8. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 04/05/2019 - 09:10 am.

    We know that in many other countries with large numbers of cyclists and pedestrians there are much lower incidence of collisions and injuries. The Netherlands are a good example. I doubt this has anything to do with lower level of animosity towards the inhumanity of others.

    I would however suggest that one clearly recognized characteristic of Americans in general is a much more pronounced sense of entitlement and privilege. I think if someone developed an entitlement/privilege scale THAT would correlate much more strongly with collisions and attitudes among drivers, cyclists, AND pedestrians. I think a far more likely component of these tensions between different modes of transit lay in the difficulty that sooooo many Americans have with the concept of shared space. My experience is that 9 times out of 10 when you encounter these tensions you’re encountering who is claiming their “ownership” of the road, trail, or sidewalk… they use ALL space as if they own it.

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