Friday, February 12, 2016

Why Are Drivers Such A-holes?

If you're a cyclist who spends any time riding on the road, whether it's a lot or a little, you've probably had some pretty negative encounters with drivers. Any ride on the road can quickly involve some uncomfortably close-calls as impatient drivers take life-threatening risks with our lives -- passing too closely when there are oncoming cars, cutting us off, running lights or stop signs, left-hooks, right-hooks, and don't forget the jerks who feel compelled to blast their horns, or scream epithets and obscenities as they go by. Some of that animosity comes out when those drivers aren't even in their cars. Read the comments section of any internet article about car-bike interactions (on second thought, don't read the comments) and just feel the hatred seething from the drivers.

It turns out that there's a lot of research into the psychology of driving -- some of it going back to the early days of cars -- and an awful lot of it points to the idea that getting behind the wheel of a car can transform even the mildest and most gentle person into a raging tyrant and raving lunatic.

I was reading an article on Gizmodo on the subject which takes a fairly straightforward look at the driving rage phenomenon and provides a range of support for the findings, as well as giving some advice for people who feel that driving rage building up (advice that, unfortunately, most car-centric drivers out there will never read or follow). The article is only about driving and focuses mainly on bad driving behavior and driver vs. driver aggression. Bicycles are not mentioned, but it seems to me that everything the article says applies even more strongly when the question is driver vs. cyclist aggression.

One thing the article mentions is how cars make people feel anonymous. Out on the road, we don't focus on the people. We see a large mechanical object -- a covering, a box, or a shield -- instead of the person inside it. "The feeling of anonymity can sometimes mean that we behave in ways that we wouldn't otherwise because we're less likely to be held accountable," says Erica Slotter of Villanova University.

It seems to me that the effect of anonymity is something that presents itself in a lot of ways, and not always inside cars or on the road. Take for example the aforementioned comment sections on so many internet articles. It's so common to find people blaming victims and threatening violence -- even potential murder or at the very least manslaughter -- against the next cyclist they see on the road. But also, note the tendency to refer to bad actions on the road being done by "cars" not "drivers." We probably all do it. "That CAR cut me off," we'll say, as opposed to "that person" or "that driver." It's a tendency that I'm noticeably aware of even as I'm writing this, and I'm finding myself unusually conscious of saying things like "driver vs. cyclist" as opposed to "car vs. bike."

The article goes on to connect that sense of anonymity to a psychological effect known as "deindividuation." Citing 1950s research by Leon Festinger, a social psychologist from MIT, it describes how people "dissolve as individuals when they become part of a group." More importantly, humans have a tendency to de-individualize people in another group. I think that aspect is particularly relevant when applied to drivers of cars vs. cyclists and other vulnerable road users.

Again, the article doesn't mention bicycles, but notice how relevant the following passage is to us cyclists. "Driving exaggerates our in-group/out-group sensibilities. We love to slot things -- including people -- into groups. Groups we belong to -- whether it be the people sitting in our car, a group of vehicles belonging to a certain type, or even cars stuck in a specific lane -- are referred to as the in-groups and they tend to be preferred and favored. Conversely, groups that we don't belong to, or don't want to belong to, are called out-groups, and they're often mistrusted."

So it becomes almost a question of "us vs. them." People on bikes are "other" or "different" and not individuals who deserve respect. I think that also explains the fact that drivers often seem blind to other drivers who run lights after they've changed to red, or roll through stop signs, etc. -- but when they see a cyclist run a light, suddenly their perception is that ALL cyclists run lights.

The article goes on, "Instead of seeing individuals, we simply see a type of car, or an endless stream of automobiles. This, in combination with perceived anonymity, gives us the sense that we won't be held accountable for our actions. It frees us from guilt of our behaviors, and gives us the freedom to commit acts that violate our social and personal norms."

Another thing mentioned is the increase in road fatalities as a result of aggressive driving. "Statistics compiled by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that 66% of all traffic fatalities are caused by aggressive driving, and that males under the age of 19 are the most likely to exhibit road rage." Some of these "aggressive driving" behaviors include weaving/cutting, speeding, hostile displays, tailgating, improper lane usage, no turn signal, and erratic braking.

As cyclists, we've probably all seen at least some of these kinds of things directed at us -- and one could probably add a few others that are more likely to involve us than other people in cars. Passing with too little clearance and when it's unsafe to pass, trying to push a cyclist off his/her bike, or even throwing objects from the car at the cyclist.

What is behind the increase in aggressive driving and road rage? The article cites the fact that people are spending more time in their cars, and the fact that commuting times are on the increase as possible factors.

My own experience would also suggest that peoples' addiction to their mobile technology is another factor. It seems to me that we have become so accustomed to instant gratification, instant results -- the whole world at our fingertips right now -- that we become less patient. Add to that the power of social media and the like to heighten a tendency toward self-centered behaviors.

Remember the "old days" on the internet, when you'd click on a website, or a link, or what-have-you, and then have time to go make a sandwich while you waited for your dial-up internet connection to load the page? Now think how frustrating it is today to even wait a couple of seconds for the same task to take place, and then apply that frustration to being on the road.

Cars today can go so fast, so smoothly and effortlessly, while the occupants are surrounded in comfort and convenience, bathed in the music of spectacular sound systems, and totally insulated from the world outside. The comfort of even the cheapest modern car would outshine the most expensive luxury car of a couple of decades ago. Out on the road, of course a cyclist is the "outsider." Why can't we just go as fast as we want to? When traffic slows down, and drivers are stuck in a long line of cars, they see that guy on a bike up ahead. HE'S the reason. HE'S SLOWING US DOWN! Never mind that even after they get past the cyclist, they're still stuck in a long line of cars -- there's a solidarity with the other cars. They're the in-group. The cyclist is "other" and logic and compassion go out the window.

I don't suppose there was a lot in the Gizmodo article that I hadn't heard before (my old psychology classes seem to come to mind) or at least suspected to be true, but it was an interesting read -- particularly when that information is viewed from the perspective of a bicyclist.


  1. i'm getting to the point that i can hardly stand to read or listen to "car vs. bike" stories. The papers' and -if mentioned on air at all- TV and radio reports all seem to be presented with an "out" for the motorist involved, "The CAR jumped the curb" "The CAR lost control" "A cyclist was killed in the ACCIDENT" "The pedestrians were struck by a CAR." i know others have covered this topic before better than i ever could... i just find myself shouting at the radio whenever i hear the words "traffic accident."

    1. It's stuff like that which makes me avoid the comments sections. The anti-bike comments get my blood boiling.

  2. Replies
    1. I don't agree. Cycling style is a direct relative to the way one drives. As is the way one walks in a store is the same as they drive. As is, a pilot who rides a motorcycle. It's all relative until an eye is upon them.

    2. I think that spending time as a more vulnerable road user - bicyclist, or motorcyclist (I've been both) I think one learns to see things differently, learns to anticipate potential problems or dangers sooner. I think the cycling influences the driving more than the other way round -- but it's just an opinion.

  3. i believe that cycling made me a better driver, and that driving made me a better cyclist. It helped me see road use and responsibility for safety from both sides of the windshield.

  4. A developing factor around here, is the cyclists who have adopted the strategy of educating drivers about certain segments of the law (at least in NY), by aggressively owning the road.

    Groups will ride 3+ abreast, taking the whole lane. You drive up behind them, they look back, see you (and your car) and then summarily ignore you.

    The law says cyclists are to be treated as slow moving vehicles. Think farm equipment. The car driver is supposed to wait till they have ample clearance and visibility to pass safely.

    All well and good, as far as the law goes.

    However. I was brought up as a "courteous cyclist". I respect the fact that the car is faster, so I allow them room to pass without much conflagration. If riding in a pack, single file out to the roads edge, let the car pass, then continue the conversation....

    The benefit here, is a virtuous cycle of courtesy. They saw I made room for them, they see me as a decent minded road user. They are less likely to see the next cyclist they encounter, as some jerk they simply need to hate.

    Get behind one of these "just exercising my rights" riding groups, and even my blood starts to boil once it's apparent they have no intention of single filing out. Some of these tight, twisty back roads, passing is often impossible. I sat behind a group for literally miles a few years back, and I was not happy, and I own a bike shop!

    My general feeling is, I'd rather be in the legal wrong (and skooch over), than dead right (and own my lane).

    Courtesy is a lost art, as is comprehension of its benefits.

    The "rights" riders are making car drivers even less cyclist tolerant than they might have been before, so if there's blame to hand out, make sure to share equitably!

    1. I'm not aware of any state laws that allow cyclists to ride 3 (or more) abreast, but I'm absolutely in agreement with you that courtesy should go both ways. I believe in taking the lane when it is necessary for my safety, such as in intersections for example. But I never want to delay people unnecessarily. Seeing other cyclists flaunt the law, or riding carelessly (or ignorantly), or anything else that makes the rest of us look bad gets me pretty worked up too.

    2. This is an argument i have with Critical Mass enthusiasts. Take the lane when your safety depends on it, but otherwise remember that "share the road" works both ways. It does no good to deliberately provoke other road users and will come back and bite you in the nether regions.

    3. We have dedicated 'green ways' in the city that have become cut-throughs for traffic. This is one situation where I feel that taking the lane is appropriate.

      The green way is intended as a safe route for cycling and as neighborhood access... not as a traffic corridor. Taking the lane is a way to slow down those who should not be traveling fast to begin with. I.e., send the message that they should use a different route.

  5. I believe that, on an individual basis, a driver who cycles is likely to be a better driver than one who doesn't. I also believe--based on my experiences--that a culture in which drivers are also cyclists is more courteous and hospitable toward cyclists.

  6. Many, if not most, people would abuse power if they had it. Having access to a car can feel like having a superpower or a killer robot and it will turn a lot of people into monsters. Whether by choice or limitation of physical ability, many people seem to move at a slower pace when they're on foot, but put 'em behind the wheel and they go into self-important urgency mode and any cyclist or pedestrian can't possibly be as important as they are, even if all they're doing is driving 5 blocks to pick up some frozen food and Diet Pepsi.

  7. Yep, it's not stated that riders must ride abreast, or anything like that, it's different.

    Essentially, you are legally entitled to your share of the main lane (as opposed to the shoulder), and vehicles must treat the cyclist as slow moving equipment. 3 feet, is, I believe, the number?

    I'll see if I can dig up the wording, but it has led to those so inclined, to militantly hold their lane, even if it's to their own detriment.

    Darwinism I suppose, but they also make all the good actors look bad, since anyone on two wheels and spandex, must just be "another one of those pain in the ass cyclists"....


  8. Because they feel protected from the fallout (violent, social, whatever) of being an arse in their metal boxes. I have seen several times people who were very aggressive becoming suddenly very nice when confronted at the next set of light when they cannot flee or use their vehicle as a weapon...

  9. Wear a camera on your helmet, cover your ass with LEDs, watch your mirror, better to eat gravel then get smashed by a truck. Walk your bike across intersections, assume the worst, but flash the shakka sign when you get waved at. Get a tough cell phone, the EMT wiped the blood off mine and called work and my wife. I wear a Jersey with an American flag, the convoy salutes me and gives me six feet.