Of Motorist Rage and the Free-Rider Bicyclist

The BBC published an interesting column yesterday about the psychology of motorist rage toward bicyclists. The upshot is that, apparently, motorists are upset most because bicyclists are free-riders in traffic: they do not pay for the system, and many do not follow the rules. Here’s the money quote:

So now we can see why there is an evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists. Deep within the human psyche, fostered there because it helps us co-ordinate with strangers and so build the global society that is a hallmark of our species, is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don’t follow the same rules as cars.

I think the hypothesis that some motorists may be angered by the perceived status of bicyclists as free-riders is sound enough to warrant a proper (academic) study.

This column, however, is seriously flawed and represents a poor first step in understanding how motorists perceptions might play a role in anger toward bicyclists.

Let’s consider the opening paragraph:

Something about cyclists seems to provoke fury in other road users. If you doubt this, try a search for the word “cyclist” on Twitter. As I write this one of the latest tweets is this: “Had enough of cyclists today! Just wanna ram them with my car.” This kind of sentiment would get people locked up if directed against an ethic minority or religion, but it seems to be fair game, in many people’s minds, when directed against cyclists. Why all the rage?

No one should mistake this for a serious investigation. This is the stuff of journalistic “trend” pieces — the kind of thing that should cause embarrassment but doesn’t.  Something about bicyclists provokes fury? Sez who? A Twitter search? Are you kidding me?

I can only speak for my own experience on the streets of Springfield, Missouri. I rarely experience motorist fury — a mental state assumed from some outward expression of anger such as an inappropriate honk, a shout, or a thrown object. The first two are rare for me and the third has yet to happen in 9 years of using a bicycle as basic transportation.

Now I have had people tell me they suffer these things “all the time” in Springfield. What I suspect is the case: A few bad experiences earn the status of salient exemplars and evolve into the assumption that all motorists must be angry.

By my experience, hardly any motorists are angry. Now that is not a positive claim of reality. I have no idea what motorists are thinking unless they tell me by one or more of the means listed above (or others I have neither thought of nor experienced).

The second thing wrong with this column is that the writer accepts the foundations of his hypothesis as if they are accepted fact: that bicyclists do not pay for the system, and many do not follow the rules. The first of these assertions is pure bunk in the American system and is probably pure bunk in the British system, too. The second assertion may be true, but we’d need a proper study to determine the extent of bicyclist compliance with the law (including the whys of particular choices) and motorist reaction to compliance or non-compliance.

So, really, all we have here is an interesting idea. What’s necessary is for a serious thinker to do the hard work of discovering if this hypothesis may become theory.

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Comments 10

  1. fred_dot_u wrote:

    I’ve had plenty of other cyclists tell me that my lane positioning is causing motorists to become angry at me and by extension, at all other cyclists. My experience with motorists is quite the opposite. Most of my time on the road is uneventful and the most anger I will experience is the sounding of a horn.

    Just as many cyclists believe that they should cower at the edge of the road, creating close overtaking situations which endanger the cyclist, there are too many cyclists who create their own interpretation of motorists’ ire.

    Law enforcement often seem to be the most creative when it comes to imagining various interactions on the roadway, to justify the traffic stop and/or citation.

    Posted 13 Feb 2013 at 5:37 pm
  2. Ian Brett Cooper wrote:

    Great post!

    As a Briton, I try to keep up with British cycling issues, and I can tell you that you’re right on point 1: cyclists do pay for the road system in the UK, as road upkeep comes primarily from general taxation. Motorists pay Vehicle Excise Duty, which is based on emissions. Cyclists are exempt (as are some types of motor vehicle) because they don’t pollute.

    Assertion #2 is similarly false, because, as in the US, motorists are just as likely to break the rules as cyclists are. I believe there have been studies done on this, but I don’t have any to hand. But all one has to do to see motorists breaking the law is to get in a car and travel along a freeway for a few minutes. I’ll be surprised if you see a single motorist traveling at or below the speed limit, unless he’s entering or leaving the freeway.

    Posted 13 Feb 2013 at 5:43 pm
  3. Steve A wrote:

    In my experience, motorist overt anger at me has much to do with what is in the head of said motorist and little to do with anything I am doing as a cyclist. People attributing motorist agression to cyclist lawbreaking or lane position are making a mistake. Unfortunately, as we learned this week, police are prone to craziness, just as are the rest of us.

    And, Ian, as I noted in my blog last week, I noticed many motorists traveling below the speed limit – on the San Diego Freeway. So that stereotype is not true, either, even if it sometimes seems so.

    Posted 13 Feb 2013 at 6:10 pm
  4. Ian Brett Cooper wrote:

    Steve, I’ve measured it on the I-495 here in Maryland on four or five occasions – true, only when traffic was running smoothly – but during my tests I didn’t see a single motorist (including my wife) travel at or below the speed limit. Everyone was doing 10mph over and we passed no one. My wife slowed down when I told her she was speeding, then everyone was passing her, so a couple of minutes later she started speeding again.

    Maybe San Diego is different, or maybe the 495 in MD is different.

    Posted 13 Feb 2013 at 7:26 pm
  5. Tom Armstrong wrote:

    I’ve lost track of which of my online bicycle friends first mentioned that “humans do what we think we can get away with doing” as a partial explanation for blowing stop signs or violating speed limit rules.

    I’ve also seen studies showing that 85+% of motorists using certain roads blew stop signs on those roads (if there were no other motorists to witness or be affected by such behavior). One comes to expect apologists rationalizing such behavior among other motorists.

    I had to bring this out a while back, when discussing traffic behavior with an anti-cyclist-type close to home. Being an ass to me as a cyclist because some other cyclist blew a traffic light is like me being an ass to him because I saw someone in a similar car to his blowing a traffic light after passing illegally after blowing his horn for five seconds for no apparent reason. He still didn’t get it.

    Posted 14 Feb 2013 at 7:42 am
  6. Chris wrote:

    The simplest defense of the free-rider argument is that few cyclists are ONLY cyclists. Most cyclists, even hard core utilitarian cyclists, also own at least one car. Therefore they DO participate in the fee and tax system that angered motorists claim they do not participate in. But the flawed perception of motorists goes deeper than that. Where does the money for local roads come from? Because cyclists tend to travel more on local roads as opposed to state and federal highways. I could be a car-free hippie cyclist that owns local property, shops local, owns a local business, and I’d be contributing more to the upkeep of of the roads I ride on than the guy who commutes from a neighboring town in his Denali.

    Posted 14 Feb 2013 at 9:38 am
  7. Ian Brett Cooper wrote:

    “The simplest defense of the free-rider argument is that few cyclists are ONLY cyclists. Most cyclists, even hard core utilitarian cyclists, also own at least one car. Therefore they DO participate in the fee and tax system that angered motorists claim they do not participate in.”

    Chris, the problem with that argument is that, although it’s simple, it concedes defeat on the tax issue where we need concede none. The fact is, some of us (including myself) ARE ‘only’ cyclists, and we also contribute in the fee and tax system, because the fact is, the fee and tax system does not unfairly target motorists – quite the contrary in fact, as the rest of us actually subsidize motorists.

    When we use the argument that cyclists are also drivers, it effectively throws those of us who aren’t drivers under the bus, and for no gain whatsoever.

    Posted 14 Feb 2013 at 10:23 am
  8. Bob Sutterfield wrote:

    The argument “few cyclists are ONLY cyclists … they also own at least one car … DO participate in the fee and tax system” is fallacious because they participate in the motorists’ motor vehicle fee and tax system only to the extent and while they’re driving that car. Their activity (and activity-connected financial contribution) while cycling is unrelated to their activity (and activity-connected financial contribution) while motoring.

    The valid economic observation is that local roads are built and maintained and policed largely with moneys from the general fund (not funded by activity-connected fees and taxes), to which all taxpayers contribute, regardless of their choice of conveyance.

    But any economic argument misses the point that the highway system (roads, sidewalks, etc.) is provided by society as a public good, available to anyone who wishes to use it. Paying one’s fair share, like buying a ticket to a theatre, is not a requirement for entrance or lawful enjoyment.

    Posted 14 Feb 2013 at 10:38 am
  9. John Brooking wrote:

    An even simpler defense: Roads are not pay-per-use, except turnpikes where bikes generally are not allowed anyway. We don’t imagine that pedestrians should have to register and pay a yearly fee to use sidewalks. The idea that there’s any relation between what you’ve paid in and your right to use is imaginary, not only in fiscal reality, but also in principle.

    Posted 14 Feb 2013 at 10:47 am
  10. fred_dot_u wrote:

    oh, golly, barbie seems to be spamming all the cycling blogs lately. What a useless activity.

    Posted 17 Feb 2013 at 8:10 pm