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

Posted by Amanda Hess

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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.

Walker’s research raises some interesting theories about why drivers act the way they do toward bikers. Maybe drivers give more leeway to cyclists they perceive as less skilled. Or maybe drivers harbor some resentment for the stereotypical bicyclist—the guy swathed in Lycra, powering down the middle of the road. Perhaps drivers respond positively to novelty—male cyclists outnumber female ones by 2-to-1. Drivers could be chivalrous. Or maybe they’re just horny—last year, a New York City cop was roundly criticized for telling a woman that riding a bicycle in a short skirt distracts male drivers. Hey, at least they’re paying attention.

What does Walker’s data mean for bikers? He has heard from one cyclist who deliberately wobbles on the road to give drivers the perception that he’s erratic, in the hopes they’ll give him a wider birth. Another carted an empty child seat behind his bike, an attempt to encourage empathy. “I like to ride my bicycle, but I cycle to work in regular clothes and don’t follow the Tour de France,” Walker writes on his own personal website. “This is important.”

But attempts to bike different aren’t a sustainable safety solution when many drivers have a problem with all bikes. Resentment toward bikers goes back to the horse and buggy days, when the emergence of the “velocipedler” was met with "open disgust,” Walker wrote in a recent paper. Onlookers jammed sticks in wheels and pelted them with stones. New York and Berlin instituted laws that restricted bicycling. Moscow banned it outright in 1881. Walker says that early animosity toward cyclists was a product of “conservatism coupled with class prejudice,” as biking “was a well-to-do activity, unaffordable to the typical working family.” As bike prices dropped and more and more people hopped on two wheels, popular disgust waned. Then, the car debuted and underwent the same cycle—it was resented, accepted, then popularized.

Now, cycling has come full circle—it’s again seen as a boutique form of transportation for people with the luxury to choose their commuting style not out of necessity but out of environmental, health, or style concerns. And the stakes are higher. In addition to pedestrians’ sticks and stones, cyclists must contend with two tons of metal barreling down the road at 60 mph. (In New York City’s very first automobile accident, in 1896, a "horseless wagon" struck a cyclist.) Today, they also must navigate an infrastructure of roads and sidewalks built to accommodate pedestrians and cars, but not the mid-speed cyclist in between. A particularly troubling phenomenon in traffic psychology is the “looked-but-failed-to-see” collision—drivers are so accustomed to only looking out for other cars on the road that even if they look in a cyclist’s direction, their mind doesn’t register the biker. And this problem only gets worse the more experience a driver has on the road.

This is partly a numbers gamewhen the number of cyclists on the road doubles, the number of bicycle accidents only increases by a third. Today, only about 2 percent of Americans rely on bikes for transportation. Walker spoke with one professional bus driver who said she could "understand the pedestrians' point of view” on the road because she had personal experience wandering into the street without looking both ways. “I can understand that—I'm always aware of that—because of the amount of times I've done it,” she told him. “I can forgive pedestrians, but cyclists I cannot.”

This is true even though cyclists, unlike cars, are relatively humanized on the road. Their bodies are exposed, their movements necessarily more improvised. Meanwhile, the driver is alienated behind tinted windows, a blasting air conditioner, and stereo sound. When a cyclist and driver meet, Walker says, the “driver largely has the experience of interacting with a person,” while the cyclist is “interacting with a machine.”

When drivers do engage with bikers on a human level, the process can be disorienting. When a cyclist and driver make eye contact, the driver’s response time actually slows under the burden of an “extra, involuntary stage of cognitive processing.” A 1979 study found that drivers do perceive the signals cyclists give on the road—both formal ones (an arm to the left to signal a turn) and informal ones (a dropped foot to signal a stop)—but these signals also slowed drivers' responses. Some drivers keep thinking like cars even after they step out of one. One study discussed the dangerous phenomenon of pedestrians "walking around in the mindset of a motorist”—people who exited their car, “continued to act as if they were protected from other traffic,” and got struck in the road themselves.

Walker’s research does point to one data point that begins to bridge the divide: “When drivers do see cyclists, they do think about it. They make a quick evaluation of that cyclist, and they adjust their behavior,” he says. “It’s just that because most drivers don’t understand cyclists, they’re not always adjusting their behavior correctly.”

I'm still riding my bike, now on the streets of L.A. Every time a driver manages to pay attention, it makes me feel a little bit better about biking on the road. I try to remember that feeling every time I get behind the wheel.

Related video: Don't Be a Douchebag! 45 Seconds to a Calmer Commute

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Chicago Bicycle Program

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