David Johnstone

Drivers vs. cyclists: the war that should not be

January 20, 2012

The furore over bikes on the road that Shane Warne instigated has not yet gone away. The main development since my last post on mandatory registration and number plates has been the emergence of the account of the cyclist himself and eyewitness reports. It sounds like Warne wasn’t close to being as innocent as he made himself out to be, but this story has become bigger than Warne’s altercation for it has reignited in the media the long-running tension between drivers and cyclists. Bridie O’Donnell — a professional cyclist — wrote a very sensible response to Warne, Miranda Devine wrote an inflammatory piece about the “silent two-wheeled menaces on our road”, Crikey responded to Devine, various cycling groups put out press releases, and thousands more discussed these things online.

Today I want to talk about the way we divide each other into groups. It is a known quirk of humans that we easily form groups and then see other groups as wrong and inferior, just because they are not us. We label them and stereotype them, and sometime after groups are formed and opposition has begun we create logical reasons to support that opposition. This group identification behaviour isn’t completely bad — without it we wouldn’t have sports teams, and more importantly, it makes an incredibly complex world possible to understand — but especially in the connected and pluralistic world we live in today, it leads to all sorts of problems since we are very exposed to “others”. There are countless examples of this grouping behaviour. Many of them are innocuous, such as Android versus iPhone, Ford versus Holden, Star Trek versus Star Wars, road cycling versus mountain biking etc., but others are more serious — think of all the ethnic strife around the world, and racism more generally. Consider also the typical attitudes we have towards four-wheel drive owners, rich people, poor people, accountants, people who live in Frankston… This is not to say that there are no other reasons for these conflicts, but the way we group people together underlies many things.

This behaviour also explains much of the controversy over bikes on the road. There are large sections of the community who strongly dislike cyclists, mostly because everybody around them also dislikes cyclists. There are social commentators like Miranda Devine who are quite comfortable labeling all cyclists as menaces. There are public figures like Shane Warne who promote antagonism towards cyclists because of the misdeeds of a minority. I’m sure this goes both ways, although I suspect cyclists are less susceptible because the majority also own cars and thus have a more nuanced view of drivers than seeing all drivers as bad — cyclists are typically normal people who also happen to ride a bike.

The popular dislike of lycra can also be explained by this. Lycra is something that “normal” people don’t wear — wearing it clearly shows that one is different. And thus, representing “otherness”, it instantly becomes disliked. Once this dislike has been established, people think of reasons why to dislike it, which often has something to do with it not being a good look. To be fair, it isn’t a good look on some, but the majority of lycra-clad cyclists look fine. In fact, many of the more serious cyclists are very conscious of how they look on their bike, which results in lists of rules on what to wear when cycling and wives who wish their husbands cared about what they wore off the bike as much as they do when on it. More seriously, one other thing everybody should be aware of is that the more lycra a cyclist wears, the more likely they are to obey the road rules. (Side note: I tweeted about that paper last year, and that generated some discussion on Twitter, and a couple of weeks later an article appeared on the front page of The Age presenting some of the research — although with a disappointingly anti-cyclist slant — so I’m going to claim partial responsibility for that article.)

To summarise, I believe that a lot of animosity towards cyclists stems from basic human thought patterns which simplify life, but at the expense of rationality, and even inherently promote hostility. But isn’t it the minority of cyclists who break the road rules and behave poorly that gives all cyclists a bad name? Only partly. Yes, those cyclists who behave poorly do give all cyclists a bad name, but only because cyclists are all already grouped together as a group of “others” who are looked upon warily.

Unsurprisingly, cyclists have a more nuanced view of cyclists. This is why cyclists who see other cyclists do the wrong thing on the roads — and a lot of us are annoyed at their behaviour — don’t automatically start disliking all cyclists. It’s also telling that cyclists who also drive are happy to have cyclists on the road. That is, the existence of cyclists doesn’t necessarily make drivers dislike them.

So, where does this leave us? Ideally, it would be great if everybody could go beyond the default grouping strategy that the human mind uses and not group all cyclists together and dislike them because they’re cyclists. It would also be nice if public figures and the media stopped promoting animosity towards cyclists and casting them in bad light, for it only serves to perpetuate the groupings of “cyclists” and “drivers” and justifies ill-will towards cyclists.

Thankfully, despite the “emerging civil war on our roads between cyclists and motorists” that Miranda Devine writes about, reality appears to be quite different. Yesterday I rode 120km from Richmond to Kinglake and back. A few cars were closer than they could have been when they overtook, but it really didn’t feel like a warzone. Bridie O’Donnell is a lot closer to the truth when she writes, “every year, there is a noticeable improvement in courtesy, patience and a general awareness of riders as valid road users, and for this I am very grateful”. The last thing we need is people like Devine legitimising attitudes that we should all move beyond.

P.S. I’m @cyclist_dave on Twitter

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