New Study Looks at Attitudes of Drivers Toward Cyclists, and It Ain't Pretty

CC BY 2.0. Life in the "separated" bike lane/ Lloyd Alter

It appears that cars are like guns: Instruments of control and vehicles of intimidation.

It is a regular topic of discussion on TreeHugger and other sites like Streetsblog: Why do drivers hate people on bikes so much? Why, when there is a crash, do drivers (and the police) always blame the cyclist? Dr. Tara Goddard asked these questions and a whole lot more in her PHD thesis, Exploring Drivers’ Attitudes and Behaviors toward Bicyclists: The Effect of Explicit and Implicit Attitudes on Self-Reported Safety Behaviors. In it she tries to dig into what drivers are actually thinking, writing in the summary:

Drivers’ attitudes toward bicyclists, and how those attitudes may affect drivers’ behavior, are a largely unexplored area of research, particularly in the United States. Bringing together social psychological theories with existing techniques for measuring driver attitudes and behavior, this research utilizes an online survey to measure drivers’ explicit attitudes and self-reported behaviors and test drivers’ implicit attitudes toward bicyclists. Understanding drivers’ attitudes toward bicyclists, and whether those attitudes predict behaviors, is integral to advancing goals of community livability that incorporate safety and environmental sustainability.

It starts with some really interesting background on why crashes happen, including an explanation of what they call SMIDSY (sorry mate, I didn’t see you) in the UK. But it turns out that our attitudes affect what we see.

Crashes between drivers and bicyclists are frequently attributed to a driver’s failure to see a bicyclist, due to inattention or "looked but failed to see (LBFTS)” (Wood et al., 2009), and there is ample evidence from psychology that “seeing” is not purely objective but is influenced by socially directed thoughts and beliefs.

Drivers of cars also have the advantage that they are in private metal boxes looking out, so that they can think and believe what they want without retribution.

bmw at crosswalk

© bmw at crosswalk, from study

While the physical bodywork of a car essentially anonymizes drivers, bicyclists are visible in their variety of shapes, sizes, ages, gender, and “racialized bodies” (Urry, 2007, p.48). Drivers have shown bias in yielding behavior by the race, apparent disabled status, or age of a crossing pedestrian (see TreeHugger: Don't cross the street while Black, according to new study); while drivers in higher status cars were less likely to yield to a pedestrian. (See TreeHugger: Study reveals the obvious: The rich are different from you and me, especially behind the wheel) When interacting with bicyclists, drivers used greater passing distance when the bicyclist was unhelmeted or appeared female. (See Ian Walker's work in TreeHugger here)

Learning about social dominance theory was totally fascinating. Humans organize into "group based social hierarchies" where the dominant groups get most of the resources. The boldface is mine:

The more legitimate a system is perceived to be, the greater in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination that dominant users will display (Pratto et al., 2006). Our automobile system, although less than a century old, is inarguably the dominant mode. The automobile is considered the default mode in much of the Western world, as evidenced by mode share and even the term “alternative transportation” applied to bicycling and walking. One distinguishing characteristic of social dominance is that “the degree of lethality . . . is often orders of magnitude greater” by the dominant group toward the subordinate group (Pratto et al., 2006, p. 3). As discussed earlier, the roadway environment has a high degree of lethality: automobiles are a leading cause of preventable death.
big pickup

Big pickup truck with killer bar on front/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This, for me, was one of the most significant insights of the study; although it is not Dr. Goddard's work, it explains so much. Cars are like guns. They are lethal and they give power to one group at the expense of everyone else. The greater the degree of lethality, the more popular they are, which probably explains why everyone is driving big pickup trucks, which are the AR-15s of the road. They are vehicles of intimidation. It's no wonder that cyclists and pedestrians feel threatened by cars; the system is designed to do exactly that. Dr. Goddard writes:

Roadways are highly congested (and thus contested), publicly funded space, and both space and funding are a finite and limited resource. This results in the perception and reality of roadway competition as a zero-sum game between roadway users (Aldred, 2012). It may be that this “realistic” competition is a stand-in for social competition; that is, the roadway is a battle ground for social domination, rather than just access to physical space.
graph re head check

© Tara Goddard

Dr. Goddard's original work reinforces this idea of social domination; you see this in many of the survey results. For instance, the most anti-cyclist, pro-drivist drivers are the least likely to bother even to turn their heads to check for cyclists, which is a good way to prevent right hooks and left turn deaths. They really just don't care. The more they dislike cyclists, the more willing they are to kill them. No wonder you get LBFTS and SMIDSYs.

pressure to overtake

© Tara Goddard

Or in the graph of "pressure to overtake," a situation where drivers pass too close or actually hit cyclists from the rear, which is often fatal. Here, social dominance kicks in and explains much. Dr. Goddard writes:

In the model of pressure to overtake, only age, social dominance, and legitimacy were significant predictors. The social dominance scale had the highest standardized coefficient. This factor scale reflects anger at bicyclist rulebreaking, willingness to excuse drivers’ rule-breaking, and perhaps most importantly, the belief that bicyclists should not hold up traffic. This suggests that drivers’ own feelings about bicyclists not holding up traffic may cause them to perceive, real or not, that drivers behind them are angry if they do not overtake. Another possibility is that they get angry when drivers in front of them do not pass bicyclists, and so they assume other drivers feel the same. ... Although roadway legitimacy is modelled as the predictor of overtaking pressure, it is possible that the relationship goes the other direction – drivers who feel pressure to overtake may see bicyclist licensing and registration as a way to control bicyclists or make them behave.

So, basically, the more people hate cyclists, the more they want to regulate them and helmet them and licence them, rather than actually give them some basic safe infrastructure (which might mean giving up some precious road.)

In her look at the implications of this study, Dr. Goddard suggests that since this is not just a mode war but a class war, a fight over identity, "this research provides more evidence that attitudes relating to social class (mode, or the intersection of mode and other social identities) play a role in behaviors toward bicyclists."

She suggests that the best way to deal with it is to separate them.

While attitudes may be difficult or take time to shift, roadway design can work immediately by either fully separating modes, or slowing down interactions so that drivers can rely more on executive function and less on implicit cognitions when looking for, seeing, and behaving toward bicyclists. Infrastructure that designates portions of the roadway space to certain users may help alleviate the tensions and difficulties that drivers in this study felt when maneuvering around bicyclists.

Lloyd Alter/ Davenport and Christie/CC BY 2.0

Yes, of course. However, the lesson from this study is that the people with the power are not going to give up space for cyclists, and if they do, it will be totally second rate. As we saw with Rob Ford in Toronto and Donald Trump in America, suburban populists drive cars and hate bikes. As we see in the UK house of lords, the entitled are entitled to the entire road.

Perhaps I am reading too much into this profoundly depressing thesis by Dr. Goddard, but there are a lot of angry drivers out there and the angrier they are, the more cyclists they kill. But giving cyclists separate infrastructure just makes them angrier. It's a vicious, vicious circle.