What Drivers Really Think About Bikers: The History and Psychology of Sharing the Road What Drivers Really Think About Bikers: The History and Psychology of Sharing the Road
Lifestyle

What Drivers Really Think About Bikers: The History and Psychology of Sharing the Road

by Amanda Hess

May 24, 2012
The Bike Nation series is brought to you in partnership with CLIF Bar.

When I lived in “bike-friendly” Washington, D.C.—the 68-square-mile District is painted with 48 miles of bike lanes—I rode my bike to work almost every day. My commute was often punctuated with contentious interactions with pedestrians and drivers. Once when I was stopped at a light, a man in a gold Cadillac emptied a bottle of water onto my lap, laughed, and sped away. A woman driving a black Range Rover veered into the bike lane, then rolled down her window to tell me to watch where I was going. Every morning, I rode past a white-painted ghost bike chained to the intersection where a young cyclist had been flattened by a garbage truck. The investigation concluded that no one was to blame. Of course, only one person was dead.

I always wondered why it was so difficult for drivers to just pay attention and not be assholes. Then I moved to Los Angeles and got a car. Here, we do not operate our vehicles so much as we hang out in them. Hunkered in my sedan, I’m now comfortable juggling an iced coffee and the radio dial while “courtesy” honking the car in front of me. Only when I jump back on my bicycle do I become a little bit scared about the person that I become when I’m behind the wheel.

The conversation about “sharing the road” revolves around classes of “drivers” and “bikers” and “pedestrians,” as if we are members of competing tribes. (See our related video on how to share the road and not be a douchebag.) But in reality, a cyclist throws her Schwinn in the back seat and becomes a driver; a driver opens her door and becomes a pedestrian. So why does she sometimes open that door straight into the path of an oncoming cyclist?

Even the experts don’t know for sure. According to Dr. Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist at the University of Bath who rides an AVC Caribou Taiga expedition touring bike he calls “The Mighty Akhbar,” the science of bicycle safety is written only in "hints and incomplete stories.” Cyclists are estimated to be 3 to 11 times as likely to die on the road than drivers—a huge statistical gap. Walker is doing his part to figure out why. In 2006, he strapped a camera and censor to his bicycle and hit the road, testing a variety of controlled riding conditions to see how cars reacted as they passed. He rode with and without a helmet. He hugged tight to the curb and rode out in the middle of the lane. Sometimes, he biked with a feminine blonde wig on his head.

After sharing the road with more than 2,000 vehicles, Walker found [PDF] that cars gave him a wider berth when he rode close to the sidewalk, when he wore no helmet, and when he strapped on that wig. Cars were more likely to whizz by close when he occupied the center of a lane, in a helmet, and presenting as male. Two cars left him no space at all—they just hit him.

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What Drivers Really Think About Bikers: The History and Psychology of Sharing the Road