More cycle paths or fewer psychopaths?

Angry cyclist

You f*cking blah blah blah road tax, blah blah get off my roads. Familiar? Commuting in London I hear such obscenities more often than I’d like. Why is it a small number of people in huge metal boxes on wheels are inclined to enter angry tirades upon spotting a cyclist? Why do people riding bicycles stir such vile, deep down hatred in some motorists?

Whilst it is a very small minority of drivers, this is a very vocal minority. You can draw parallels to the red light jumping cyclists. Their failure to obey the law taints the majority of folk who ride bikes and respect the law.

I hate cyclists

Rules are rules

Rules are rules

The above social media rant is familiar to most from the infamous case of Emma Way and her somewhat ill advised and ill informed Twitter rant. Sadly this was not an isolated incident, as demonstrated on the excellent, if depressing, @CycleHatred on Twitter. Such reading is disturbing but mostly only words.

Add to that the hundreds of helmet cam videos on Youtube and their equally illuminating comments and you could be left wondering if drivers really do hate cyclists. More worrying are the incidences of cycle baiting on the roads or reports of drivers deliberately attacking cyclists, be it throwing eggs at cyclists, winding down their window and pushing them off the bike or using their car or motorbike to bring a cyclist down.

Now, before I run and hide beneath my bed from these monsters, let’s acknowledge that i) crazy people are well, crazy, ii) the vast majority of drivers do not hate cyclists iii) cycling is still a very safe way to travel and iv) the menacing acts of violence highlighted above are not restricted to cyclists.

Hate and anger are universal. Witness eggs being thrown at car drivers. Or the horrid stories of rocks being dropped off bridges onto cars. Similarly on Twitter you’ll find equal amounts of irrational hatred for all things, be it minor celebrities, estate agents, Ryanair, and even babies, although seemingly Twitter users mostly hate themselves.

Them versus us

Excuse me, would you like a hand repairing that puncture?

Excuse me sir, would you like a hand repairing that puncture?

Yet the perception persists. It’s a war out there apparently. Such words leave the mouths of the press, drivers and, perhaps more than most, cyclists. There is something tribal about riding a bike. Many of us call ourselves, or even define ourselves, as ‘cyclists’. This I find odd. Many of us drive but wouldn’t dream of introducing ourselves at a party by saying, “Hello, my name’s Jane and I am a driver”. I don’t call myself a cyclist. It’d be a bit like calling myself a footballer because I play five-a-side, a masseuse because I rub my neck on occasion, or a cleaner because I tidy up every now and then.

“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.”
Batman, or Bruce as he is known to his lovers, riffing on an old Thomas Jefferson quote

Whilst I find defining ourselves by what we do a strange sentiment (I am not my job, for example), I accept that others will define me by what they see or perceive me (or others like me) to be doing. There’s worse things to be called than a cyclist and I’m certainly not embarrassed by the label, yet neither does it stroke my ego and make me beat my chest like a warrior every time I hit the road. For some people this is true. To them, cycling is a noble pursuit. Riding a bike makes them better than others. Again, we’re talking a small yet visible minority. These cyclists believe in the ‘us versus them’ war and often use the label ‘cyclists’ to play the victim or be self-righteous.

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis.”
Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club. Substitute khakis for bib shorts.

Some perspective. Yes cyclists get a rough deal on the road. We have near misses and our lives are occasionally put into danger by shoddy road design, shabby road surfacing or poor driving. Does this give us the right to break the law or to shout abuse at folk simply because we ride a bike? No. Are cyclists sometimes as guilty as drivers for putting themselves in danger? Yes, of course. We’re all guilty of mistakes and bad decisions.

I recently witnessed a cyclist banging his fist violently on a car door because the driver had stopped in the advanced stop line at a red traffic light, the very same red traffic light the cyclist proceeded to cycle straight through. When catching up with said person, his only reply was to shout abuse at me for not wearing a helmet. I should have known better. I had disobeyed my own golden rule. Never debate with an idiot.

“Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”
Mark Twain

Unfortunately, this small yet highly vocal and visible minority of cyclists only adds to the perception that all people riding a bike are ‘self-righteous Lycra louts’, to quote some right wing media sources. The same can be said of the small minority of anger filled drivers.

Why do some car drivers hate cyclists?

Sorry mate, I didn't see you

Sorry mate, I didn’t see you

Psychologists with bigger brains than I argue drivers get angry with cyclists because those on two wheels upset the ‘moral order’. “Driving is a very moral activity,” argues psychologist Tom Stafford, who has perhaps never taken a ride in an illegal minicab. Cyclists, he believes, upset the perceived rules of the road. Perceived being the keyword. We’re not just talking about red light jumping here. Some drivers don’t like to see cyclists beating the traffic, moving a lot slower than the speed limit or not keeping in lane (i.e. the gutter!). It’s a theory, I’ll give him that much.

A more discerning view is that of Professor Ian Walker, an expert in traffic and transport psychology. Cyclists, he argues, are a minority enjoying an activity deemed inappropriate in a culture that views driving as the norm. This I think goes someway to explaining it. Cycling is simply not perceived as being normal. Not yet, anyway.

I’d add to this the theory of ‘negativity dominance’ whereby drivers are more likely to remember the one red light jumper rather than the 100 law abiding cyclists. This is why I’m happy to see police cracking down on RLJs, not because they are a significant danger to other road users, but because they add to the negative stereotype of law breaking cyclists.

Extending these theories further, the divide between some motorists and cyclists can be broken down into three categories: perception, education and psychopathy.

Perception

Some people think cyclists are asking to be run over. Thanks to a very visible minority of cyclists, you can see why. Red light jumping. Riding without lights. Not signalling or looking over their shoulder. Dangerous manoeuvres. Poor positioning on the road. Yet perspective is needed. Whilst all of these are examples of bad cycling behaviour, the person they are most likely to injure or kill is themselves. Compare that to dangerous driving in a car.

Education

No, there’s no such thing as road tax. No, I don’t have to ride in the cycle lane. No, I shouldn’t be riding in the gutter. No, I shouldn’t be cycling on the pavement, this is for pedestrians, hence the name, footpath. No, I don’t need to wear a helmet. Or high vis. And yes, I can afford a car thank you very much (a personal favourite!). Do I think I own the road? Touché, my car driving friend. Driver education is for me the greatest barrier in the so-called cyclist versus driver war.

Psychopaths

Pull my finger

Pull my finger

What can be done to increase the safety of cyclists? More cycle paths or fewer psychopaths? Sometimes I wonder if a psychopath test should be a requirement before drivers (or cyclists) are allowed on the road. Anger management classes perhaps. Anything to increase their tolerance of people who cost them what are obviously vital seconds on their journey.

That said, these fist clenching, teeth gritting, abuse spitting men and women of the road would be equally as angry if you were driving a car and happened to cross their (psycho) path. Such psychopathic tendencies are also found amongst some cyclists and pedestrians too. In many an incident there is simply no reasonable or logical explanation for the behaviour of this tiny minority.

Hatred is unacceptable

Everybody would agree with this statement. The words are logical, rational, simple common sense. Hatred is unacceptable. Yet in the heat of the moment we’re all guilty of bouts of anger that can lead us to hate. Am I asking too much for everybody, myself included, to be civil? Probably. We are human after all. Heartbeat racing after a near miss, I know how difficult it can be to keep your cool in the heat of the moment.

Use the force

Be you a cyclist, driver or pedestrian, you are still a person. Be the bigger woman or man. Do not turn to the dark side.

“Anger, fear, aggression… the dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny”
Yoda, Grand Master of the Jedi Order

As much as you may want to answer an illogical statement from a driver, think about what psychologist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls “the affect heuristic”. This means people often take mental shortcuts to solve their problems, therefore they make a judgement based on emotion rather than logic. The quote below is perhaps easier and better to remember.

“Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”
George Carlin

Besides life really is too short. Why spend time arguing when you could be cycling? Resist the urge to shout back and simply ride home, let out a little Chewbacca* moan if you want, and then carry on with your life. So peace out my pedal pushing friends. And peace, love and happiness also to my steering wheel buddies.

*You may have gathered from this blog post that I watched a lot of Star Wars over Christmas. Random fact: Chewbacca’s voice is a mix of recordings taken from walruses, lions, camels, bears, rabbits, tigers and badgers.

I disagree with everything you say

We come in peace

We come in peace

Is it a war out there? How do you remain calm on the bike? Ignorance is bliss? Or perhaps confusion reigns? I know some cyclists who like to blow kisses at drivers in the heat of the moment. A nice move, so long as the driver doesn’t interpret it as some sort of sexual invitation.

Images courtesy of 1) Unknown 2) Twitter 3) Youtube 4) Unknown 5) From the film, 12 Angry Men 6) Kramon Photography

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19 thoughts on “More cycle paths or fewer psychopaths?

  1. Nice article, I definitely like the part about identifying as a cyclist or not; I often refer to myself as one because it is easier to say than “I greatly enjoy riding a bicycle for casual travel as well as commuting.” I have had many close calls with drivers and these prompted me to buy a helmet for riding, but I think wearing the helmet may just encourage them to drift a bit closer to me sometimes.

    I don’t know if it is war or not but when I do wind up driving there is something about being behind the wheel of a car that makes it much easier for me to slip into psychotic mode, perhaps it’s feeling boxed in by all that steel and glass.

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    • Thanks dhippensteel. There’s a theory that drivers are liberated from their identity when hiding behind the steel and glass of their car, freeing them from social laws such as respect and civility. As you say, it’s almost as if some are dehumanised and actually become a part of the machine, terminator style in some instances!

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  2. Where do the Police fall in this? I think Mark Twain got it spot on. I was stopped this morning and fined £50 for cycling along a bus lane (to avoid the dangerous Holborn junction) that is to be open for cyclists. The Policeman said the fine was to protect me from dangerous buses…

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    • The police? That’s a very good question Stephen. I think they should start with education of both drivers and cyclists. I see lots of police stopping cyclists to hand out advice (good) but am yet to see them stopping cars (not so good).

      They should also enforce the rules, most of which are perfectly reasonably. This they have been doing in London of late. There are some rules which need review. Dangerous junctions and also the loop you are referring to in Holborn which has been the subject of many a cycling safety discussions, the best of which was covered on Road.cc here.

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  3. Nice post. I agree with much of what you write, and i’m very glad i’ve never had the pleasure of commuting by bike in London – sounds a bit like running the gauntlet.

    Regarding cyclists referring to themselves as such, i think you hit that nail on the head when you made the point that cycling is not percieved as normal – surely this is why people like to define themselves as such, it’s a type of behaviour which defines a person by it’s very difference.

    To someone who doesn’t go out and ride 50 miles on a Sunday morning, the thought of choosing to do so seems bizarre, and so that person is defined as the one who rides 50 miles on a Sunday morning (in other words, a cyclist).

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    • Agreed. Cycling 50 miles still feels odd to me when I hear myself say itself! That said, I find the thought of long distance running odd and you don’t hear folk calling themselves running or being referred to as such by friends!

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    • I can’t properly reply to nested comments like the one below but…
      people who run regularly for exercise and enjoyment absolutely do call themselves runners and are referred to as such, although obviously the context does not generally include transportation as in cycling.

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  4. Just had a quick read through a few pieces. Entertaining, will be back for a proper read. I do think using the picture of the car hitting the race (in South Africa or maybe it was Brazil?) is a bit sensationalist, gruesome and out of context.
    To be honest I think it cheapens a pretty good site.

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    • Thank you for the feedback Matt. I did have reservations about posting that image. My intention was not to sensationalise. The image is from a race in Mexico and the driver in question was drunk and asleep. One cyclist lost their life and ten were injured.

      The point I’m trying to make with the image is to re-contextualise cyclists as humans. For me the image is a stark reminder that cyclists are human, a fact I think some drivers can easily forget when they climb into their airbag protected machines. I didn’t want to hide from the fact that lives are lost.

      The image is horrific and was published as a sober reminder that the so-called driver-cyclist war should be considered in context as a human-human war where lives are at risk, a fact easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.

      I’d be interested to hear the thoughts of others – should the image be replaced because it serves no purpose within the context of the article?

      Like

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  8. I used to shout back at angry motorists telling me to get off the road, now I just smile, wave and send air-kisses instead. Not only does it make me feel less agitated, I’m sure it makes the miserable egomaniacal sods in their metal prisons furious as well, win-win 😉

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  9. My theory is this; humans can only process and cope with so much input. Beyond that, they become aggressive as anxiety levels rise. I’m not an especially relaxed traveller in aircraft, and I’ve noticed I feel aggressive if someone is ‘in my space’ in some way during bouts of severe turbulence or what I perceive to be unusual movements of the aircraft. Similarly, busy urban traffic conditions present road users with too much information and too rapidly to process, and anyone competing for their space or removing their options for ‘flight’ is dealt with in an aggressive manner.
    I would be surprised if there is any more likelihood of being involved in road rage as a cyclist than as a driver.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think there’s definitely an element of too much info. I get cranky when in a busy place, too many people making me somewhat claustrophobic. Fortunately flight is my answer, not fight!

      I’m a driver and a cyclist, there is as much road rage in each situation however when driving I’ve not experienced anyone get of their car to intimidate me as I have many times as a cyclist. I think there’s a position of superiority that some drivers assume from within their metal box and as such, they are convinced they are right and they are going to tell the puny cyclist as much too.

      I wonder if there are as many driver on driver road rage physical fights as there are with cyclists and drivers, of if we just see more of the latter due to cyclists filming on go pros. It certainly says something when cyclists are so scared they feel the need to film their every turn of the pedal.

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