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.