The Psychology of Cyclist-Hating Drivers

It seems safe to assume that you, the reader of this post on a site dedicated entirely to bikes, are intimately familiar with the special vitriol American drivers reserve for bicyclists. The worst rhetoric presents itself in the comments underneath nearly every mainstream media story that so much as mentions bikes (it’s hard to get in a full rant as you speed by that bastard cyclist rudely using the road built for your car. “Get off the rooaaaa” is usually the best they can muster). Comments range from screeds about bikes not paying for the roads therefore not deserving to ride on them to disgusting quips about injured cyclists getting what they deserved for riding where they don’t belong.

The ignorance and faulty logic of bike-hating Internet commenters is frustrating to no end, but it’s somewhat benign in the grand scheme. When that same hatred manifests in the mind of someone behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle, however, it is incredibly dangerous. Enraged drivers suddenly feel justified as they try to scare cyclists by “buzzing” them, honking, cutting them off, yelling, or throwing something.

What the drivers often don’t take into consideration (at least I don’t think they do) is the razor-thin line between a scared cyclist and a severely injured cyclist that’s been hit by a car or run off the road. Occasionally drivers take that hatred to extremes and try to intentionally injure or kill cyclists. On of the most sickening examples of this happened in late February when a 47-year old man intentionally plowed his car through a large group of cyclists riding in critical mass in Porte Alegre, Brazil.

None of this is particularly surprising, but expectation doesn’t help explain why there’s such pervasive hatred for cyclists. Though plenty of drivers are most certainly assholes, that unfortunately doesn’t cut it as an explanation (as one of the articles I’m about to link explains). Fortunately two smart writers recently spent some time thinking about this issue and crafting theories to help explain the hate.

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us), wrote an article for Outside magazine called “Rage Against Your Machine.” In it, he says the hatred stems from the notion that bicyclists are outsiders in America. As such, drivers separate themselves from the bike riders they pass on the road and devalue them in their minds.

Vanderbilt writes:

This dynamic appears on the road in all kinds of ways. “We know that merely perceiving someone as an outsider is enough to provoke a whole range of things,” says Ian Walker, a researcher at the University of Bath who specializes in traffic psychology. “All the time, you hear drivers saying things like ‘Cyclists, they’re all running red lights, they’re all riding on sidewalks,’ while completely overlooking the fact that the group they identify with regularly engages in a whole host of negative behaviors as well.” This social categorization is subtle but dominant, he points out. When people are given a piece of paper and asked to describe themselves, “men never write, ‘I’m a man.’ Whereas women will write ‘woman’ because being male is the ‘default’ status in society.”

And so it is with cyclists. In a country like the Netherlands, which has more bikes than people and where virtually the entire population cycles at one time or another, the word cyclist isn’t meaningful. But in the U.S., the term often implies something more, in both a good and a bad sense.

In a blog post on the Chicago magazine site called “Why Do Drivers Hate Cyclists?”, Whet Moser builds on Vanderbilt’s article by discussing the idea that drivers fear cyclists. It’s not that drivers fear cyclists are going to attack them, but that they as drivers of big metal vehicles know that they’ve got the potential to seriously injure a vulnerable cyclist and it scares them. Rather than allow themselves to be outwardly afraid, they channel their fear into anger directed at those that make them afraid.

I find myself more convinced by Vanderbilt’s argument that drivers see cyclists as outsiders. But the two perspectives are far from mutually exclusive and Moser’s ideas are certainly worth thinking about.

Both of their ideas point to angry drivers “othering” cyclists. It is the way by which many groups of people have been discriminated against and persecuted in the past. (Don’t worry, I’m not conflating the problems of cyclists with racial, sexual, religious, etc persecution, but there are parallels to be drawn). When you tell yourself someone is beneath you, it’s a lot easier to justify your vitriolic and violent actions against them.

While there are a few theories as to why cyclists fill some drivers with rage, the solution is pretty well agreed upon and quite simple (on paper at least). Get more people on bikes. The more people riding, the less bikes can be considered outsiders, others, or anything but people using the road.

6 Responses to The Psychology of Cyclist-Hating Drivers

  1. Pingback: Bike News Roundup: Neighbors fight a street mural featuring puppies | Seattle Bike Blog

  2. Very interesting and thought provoking post – great that it’s now been recognized as a phenomenon! I’ve been struggling to comprehend it for many years. The awful thing is that it’s so endemic, speak to drivers even those who ride bikes occasionally and they all have the same point of view. It’s incredibly saddening, what the hell do we have to do to get some respect? Take up arms?
    Henry’s post yesterday on this subject was an eye opener – it seems even Amsterdam isn’t immune to the psychotic driving mentality: http://www.bakfiets-en-meer.nl/2011/07/11/road-rage-in-holland/
    Mick

  3. My anger is with crazy riders that swerve in and out of traffic. The crazy guy that cuts in front of me or tries to squeeze in between me and a bus will impose on me with his stupidity if there is an accident! I don’t appreciate being put in a position where I could hurt someone because of there stupidity!

  4. There are multiple factors in the motorist-versus-bicyclist road rage phenomenon.
    (1) As mentioned in the articles, drivers may be afraid of the potential of cyclists to cause accidents, that they may inadvertently injure cyclist. This makes drivers nervous and can trigger the same emotions underlying the general road-rage personality
    (2) Incomprehension of bicycle as a road vehicle and ignorance of the law. Some drivers believe roads are exclusively for cars and cannot imagine any other form of transportation
    (3) Class warfare, Middle America versus the poor who cannot afford to own cars, and versus the “hipsters” who intentionally antagonize motorists
    (4) Class warfare, Middle America versus the affluent, resentment of the “yupsters” who have the leisure time and disposable income for cycling as a sport or hobby
    (5) Class warfare, Middle America versus the physically fit. Epidemic of obesity and indolence means many drivers could never ride a bicycle for transportation even if they owned one.

  5. Just to let you know – it’s not an American phenomenon…in England we have hated cyclists for decades. Apart from the aforementioned habit they have of hogging the road,ignoring signs, switching from road to path to road as and when they feel like it, ignoring the special cycle paths that have cost fortunes to build – The idiots are not insured and some of them invite ridicule by the weird,gay-looking outfits they wear.
    In the UK, we are currently culling badgers – I strongly advocate an open season on cyclists ( we should at least be able to give them a nudge with a broom from time to time – it would certainly brighten up boring journeys).

    ;)

  6. John,

    I got knocked off my bike in a cycle lane – hence the car driver happily ignored the road signs.

    When a car is stopped in traffic and I am going faster than it, the car is hogging the road wouldn’t you agree?
    It would certainly save £millions to the NHS if all of these fat people decided to start cycling into work instead of driving. These are inevitably the same fat people that use a lift to go up three flights of stairs or less and drive automatic transmissions because their left leg aches pressing a clutch pedal in all that traffic. ;)

    Riding keeps me fit, costs next to nothing, and is a quicker form of commuting to work. You all have the same option I do and if you live sub 10km from work, you have no excuse for not doing it!

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