Why do drivers get angry at cyclists

Driver confronting a cyclist

If you sat and thought now about the number of times you’ve been riding happily along, minding your own manners and rules of the road, only to have an angry driver honk, scowl or shout a few colourful words your way?

Ever wondered why? Was that guy just having a bad day or did you unknowingly swerve in front of his vehicle?

A recent article by BBC writer and Cognitive Science and Psychology lecturer at the University of Sheffield, Tom Stafford puts forth an interesting theory.

Social Order Interrupted

Stafford’s theory, is that motorists get angry at cyclists simply because they interrupt the natural social order of driving, and therefore society.

When we get behind the wheel or a pair of handlebars, there is a direct and indirect set of rules to which we all agree.

It’s similar to when you arrive at the post office and there’s a huge queue. You don’t just skip to the front of the queue, you join the back. (Especially as you are British).

However, cyclists are sometimes above those rules. In both a legal and illegal sense.

For example, in a queue, a cyclist can very easily get to the front.

Already that disrupts the social order.

In more extreme cases, a cyclist can jump a red light, ride on the pavement or cycle the wrong way up a one way street.

All of this leaves a driver thinking: “Blood cyclists”.

When they say “bloody cyclists” what they are really saying is: “Why should I have to sit here in a queue while the cyclist jumps to the front?”.

Indeed, car drivers get just as angry at other drivers who sneak into the queue without signalling, drive recklessly and otherwise ignore widely accepted road rules.

Interestingly, in Mexico, I made the mistake of driving the wrong way up a one way street. I inconvenienced four motorists, yet not a single one seemed angry at me. Perhaps as rule breaking on the road is more prevalent here, there’s less of a “social order” from which to deviate.

“Bloody cyclists”

Another psychological principle is at work on our roads.

To make sense of the complex world around us our minds like to simplify things. The result is we overgeneralise.

Drivers will often lump everyone who rides a bicycle in to one big group labelled “cyclists”. They see a cyclist behaving badly, and then conclude “all cyclists break the rules”.

Indeed, the angry wrath of the driver that you are receiving may be the result of another cyclist they saw earlier in the day.

This is further exacerbated by the way we tend to better remember the scenarios where someone breaks the rules, as it makes an impression on us. In contrast, when someone follows the rules, we don’t notice, as there is little to notice.

See also: How to make your next bike ride safer than the last.

Venting anger on Twitter

A cursory check on Twitter reveals what people really think.

One man wrote, “20,000 points to the first person who hits an annoying bloody cyclist!”

Meanwhile a woman posted this seconds later: “Almost hit a cyclist who ran a red light, was tempted to speed up and grant his death wish. Ha!”

These comments were angry, but tame compared to many others.

The question then becomes, is this anger warranted or are bicyclists simply the new group to hate?

The anger is mostly irrational. Most cyclists obey the rules. Indeed, we don’t get angry when the driver has the advantage, and they can accelerate on a clear road, so why should they get angry at a cyclist who can get to the front of a queue?

If you’re the cyclist who makes up your own road rules, with little regard for your road mates, you probably think they’re overreacting.

If you often bear the brunt of motorist hostility, simply because you travel on two wheels, you probably wish your fellow cyclists would try a little harder to share the road amicably.

Is there anything we, as cyclists, can do to make motorists a little less angry?

There are the basics, such as sticking to the rules and showing a little politeness.

In the mean time, they’ll continue to be angry cyclists and angry motorists. Sharing the road inevitably means these conflicts will arise. As we start to see better infrastructure for cyclists, we may also see a drop in conflicts.

See also: 7 things you should give up in order to be a happy cyclist.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

31 Responses to Why do drivers get angry at cyclists

  1. Andy Goode 09/04/2013 at 9:23 am #

    If comments like this are being made, then why aren’t these tweeters being pulled? Surely it’s incitement?!?! If I said that I’d just seen Harry Hill and wanted to stab him, I can be arrested (as seen in the past). Perhaps if the Police explained to these morons that they have no right to post such things, or that they may be deemed to break the / a law, it might help curb some the arsehole behaviour from drivers.

    • GrahamS 10/04/2013 at 11:53 am #

      If only! Sadly the incitement crimes on twitter don’t seem to apply to our particular minority for some reason.

      Spend some time reading @CycleHatred who is a cyclist that re-tweets all the nasty anti-cyclist tweets he finds for everyone to see. Some of them are really quite alarming!


      • David 12/04/2013 at 1:42 pm #

        Why did I just go an look at that Twitter feed? Now telling myself I don’t need the agro to go an wade in with some well formed replies.

  2. JonF 09/04/2013 at 9:30 am #

    Acknowledge the driver and communication e.g. Signalling

  3. bigbluewolf 09/04/2013 at 9:58 am #

    Quote: “In more extreme cases, a cyclist can jump a red light, ride on the pavement…” I’ve found that is normal behaviour and not extreme.

    Unfortunately, there are a lot of cyclists who don’t take any notice of the rules of the road (just like motorists) and put themselves in danger. A bit of common sense on both sides of the divide would help.

  4. JWCyclist 09/04/2013 at 10:53 am #

    A *lot* of cyclists in London are a danger to themselves and others on the road unfortunately…they’re just bad cyclists and should not be on the road. Although drivers are not innocent in this, in my experience it is the cyclists that are their own worst enemy on the road.

    It is annoying to see all the cyclists whine with impunity and overtones of victimisation when they should just learn how to cycle properly!

    • Hannah 10/04/2013 at 1:40 pm #

      I agree – it really frustrates me, and I think people are too quick to dismiss bad cyclist behaviour as the exception, rather than face the fact it is pretty common place.

      It affects all of us who wish to cycle safely from A to B. in fact, it undermines the whole movement to improve cycling facilities in London. All the campaigning, all the protests, all undermined because of what strikes me as an unbelievable impatience which sees some people cycle through pedestrian lights, cycle on the pavement to get to the front rather than taking the lane and waiting your turn.

      The “it’s too dangerous for me to obey the rules” argument doesn’t cut it in almost all the situations I see every day. Impatience is the big motivator, not self preservation.

      To say drivers do bad things is irrelevant. It doesn’t cause cyclists to misbehave. Also, I am of the (very unscientific, from every day cycling observation) opinion that cyclists are way ahead in terms of bad behaviour on London’s roads. You just need eyes to see this.

      It’s the good cyclists who suffer most 🙁 I love cycling, and will defend it every time. But some people do make this hard.

      • Dave 10/04/2013 at 6:06 pm #


        While I have to agree with you, I doubt that the bad cyclists read this forum and so miss the positive contributions people like you make.

        I would welcome a bike registration system so that an offending cyclist could be identified. A suitable sanction might be the confiscation of the offender’s bike for a few days or weeks depending on the offence

        • Mark S 10/04/2013 at 9:22 pm #

          I’m sorry I have to disagree with both of you. The whole “cyclist need to get their house in order” suggestion is just tosh. I think Carlton Reid did a great spoof piece on a similar vein with cars suggesting that until ALL drivers obey the rules then there wouldn’t be any more spending on infrastructure for them.

          The impatience that Hannah seems to think is to blame for cyclists ignoring the rules of the road could quite easily be used to excuse the high number of motorists who speed, after being stuck in slow moving traffic for an age they try to “make up” for lost time as soon as they get a clear bit of road.

          The problem with pointing out driver bad behaviour is that everyone just accepts it as “normal” be it speeding, using their mobile phone, failure to wear a seatbelt or jumping red lights.

          You also need to consider the relative dangers that each group presents, generally speaking a bad cyclist is mainly endangering themselves (how often does a cyclist kill someone?) compared to the bad driver who will invariably kill or injure someone else before they are hurt thanks to the protective shell they are driving around in.

          Dave – Bike registration has been covered before, it’s financially un-workable, we already have registration plates on cars and they clearly don’t magically make everyone obey the law OR make it easy to prosecute drivers who do. I’ve received numerous fines and notices for the previous tenant where I live now. There have also been cases (such as the cyclist who was assaulted in Swansea) where the registered keeper of a vehicle can just deny it was them carrying out whatever is claimed to have happened.

          Personally I think it comes down to simple jealousy as to why some drivers hate cyclists. They pay a huge premium to sit around in their cars with petrol, insurance, VED and parking charges etc. and get frustrated when they see the “freeloader” cyclists getting around much easier, quicker and more cheaply then them 🙂

        • Amoeba 13/04/2013 at 1:58 pm #

          Bike registration schemes don’t work, at least not the type that you suggest. There are few bike registration schemes and these are primarily aimed at tracing stolen bicycles. Police aren’t interested in car registration numbers unless the vehicle has been used in a serious offence, so RLJ, cycling without lights or riding on the pavement won’t be of the slightest interest.

          The ONLY way in which bicycle registration schemes work, is in deterring cycling. Cycling is primarily a force for social good (particularly utility cycling), and society needs more people to cycle and doesn’t need to deter cycling any more than it already does already.

  5. MrCommuter 09/04/2013 at 12:44 pm #

    I don’t cycle in London but in Peterborough. Every day without exception I see cyclists do stupid things.

    But the biggest issue for me, is that many road users still fail to understand that it is individuals that are so dangerous and not transport types. People may moan about cyclists jumping lights, but I wonder how many other road users would do it if they could get away with it? (note I didn’t specify a collective transport type).

    Also, the question I would like to ask the anti-cyclist brigade is: Would an idiot on a bike jumping lights be safer behind the wheel of a 1.5 ton car?

    All arguments aside, despite the ridiculous antics of some individuals who qualify as potential organ donors, by far the closest I have personally ever come to being maimed or killed and my children being orphaned, is by drivers behind the wheels of powered vehicles.

  6. MrCommuter 09/04/2013 at 12:58 pm #

    Oh, I should just confirm something…

    Although like any other human I do make mistakes, I do not condone any deliberate dangerous road-rule breakers regardless of transport type.

    I wish the government would clamp down on all of them. Cyclist jumping lights, and also people like the idiot in an MPV yesterday who raced to get in front of me thus pushing me towards the kerb as we approached a central bollard. No doubt because he didn’t want to wait an extra few seconds.
    If I had followed the government rules and rode out in the centre of the lane to prevent him/her overtaking, I wonder what the driver’s response would have been.

    • paulc 07/01/2015 at 12:45 pm #

      I know what it could have been… I had a Mercedes Sprinter van come screaming up behind me while I was in primary a short distance away from a pinch point and he overtook on the wrong side of the island and then turned sharp left into a side road much to the astonishment of a car driver waiting for me to pass before he pulled out… Happened here:


  7. George 09/04/2013 at 5:00 pm #

    We cyclists must have our own cognitive biases as well; there are some days when it seems almost every car has ignored a cycle lane, parked over a box junction or neglected to indicate in a quiet street. But that’s probably just me filtering out the good drivers as Andreas points out. This makes the ‘conflct’ between road users seem intractible, and it iisn’t realistic to imagine it will ever end.

    I agree with the comments above; I sometimes find London cyclists just as annoying as drivers in their disregard of the highway code.


  8. Dave 09/04/2013 at 8:06 pm #

    I am a cyclist I don’t pollute, pay vehicle excise tax jump red lights ride on the pavement or anything else that you and I are blamed for I just ride bikes cause I love to

  9. Andrea 09/04/2013 at 9:46 pm #

    Bloody cyclists, bloody foreigners, bloody politicians, bloody teenagers, bloody pedestrians, bloody hoodies, bloody terrorists, bloody everybody who dare interrupt my precious Social Order!
    Stafford’s probably right. We live in a society where social order is so important that we refuse to see the ‘person’ behind the handlebars, the wheel, under the hoody, etc.
    As usual it becomes a question of majorities winning over minorities, indiscriminate generalisations, cowardness, pathetic nimbyness and utter ignorance.
    We need rules because we lack common sense. We lack common sense because we grew up following rules.
    We end up hating our fellow human beings because of Social Order Interrupted? More like Brain Function Interrupted.

  10. Trev 10/04/2013 at 8:32 am #

    I ride through the centre of London every day and see some pretty terrible cycling and some pretty terrible driving. I’m a driver and a cyclist and I believe that when you are both, you have a slightly better understanding of what drivers are thinking when a cyclist swerves out in front of them or jumps a red light while they wait patiently. It drives me mad when cyclists break simple road rules as they give a bad name to people like myself who as a rule, never rides on the pavement or goes through a red light and actually looks over my shoulder before swerving out into the road, not just for vehicles but for other cyclists as well. Cyclists are always really quick to have a go at motorists and how they treat us but I’ve seen the sort of cycling that makes me want to shout at another cyclist when I’m on my bike and I’ve also seen cyclists screaming and shouting at cars for hardly any reason at all. I think there needs to be some serious education on BOTH sides of the fence before we’ll be able to genuinely share the road in some sort of harmony.

    • M4RKM 10/04/2013 at 12:13 pm #

      You’ve summed it up there quite nicely. As a driver and a cyclist, (not great at either, I’m pretty sure of that), but it does give you the perspective from both sides of the story.

      The amount of cyclists who don’t look or make eye contact with me at a driver, is probably the same proportion of drivers who don’t check their blind spots, or their left wing mirror before making maneuvers

      Simple education that isn’t patronizing, and that is relevant to both is needed.

  11. BrooklynNellie 10/04/2013 at 11:59 pm #

    Pedestrians hate these tossers even more. They are reckless and dangerous. Cyclists act as if the rules do not apply to them.

    • Amoeba 12/04/2013 at 11:55 am #

      There are stupid and irresponsible drivers, cyclists, pedestrians and objectionable people who make troll comments on internet forums.
      It’s not ‘drivers’, ‘cyclists’, ‘pedestrians’, who are stupid and irresponsible it’s the individuals – people who act in such a way everyday, it’s what they are and how they act. Of course anybody can make a genuine mistake, and normal feel chastened and embarrassed when they realise their stupidity.

      Pedestrians can and do injure and occasionally kill cyclists, by stepping off a footway into the road without looking; motorists can injure and kill everyone else in multiple ways and cyclists can do injure other cyclists and pedestrians.

      The fact that you resort to psychological projection reveals your innermost thoughts and motives. While your inability to realise that cyclists are individuals in the same way that pedestrians and motorists are, says even more about you.

      FYI, pedestrians are at a greater risk from motorists on the footway than from cyclists. Who says so? – the statistics do!

      • paulc 07/01/2015 at 12:41 pm #

        true… number of pedestrians a year killed by cyclists is 2 at most a year and is headline news all over, number of pedestrians killed by motor vehicles is in the hundreds and only makes the news when it’s a large number or very tragic…

        to wit, the recent death of several pedestrians in Glasgow last December when a refuse van was out of control and crashed into them… or the tragedy in Northern Ireland last year when a mother and her children were ploughed into by a motor car while they were walking to school on a road with no sidewalk and she’d only recently complained to the council about it…

  12. Dave 11/04/2013 at 12:18 am #

    I think it is more important to say some cyclists some pedestrians and some motorists they aren’t All guilty or for that matter innocent. I have looked at the @hate cyclists tweets and very few people give valid if any reason for hating us.

    Perhaps a little bit of tolerance all round would be good. I cannot make you behave differently but I can change the way I respond to your behaviour

  13. MrCommuter 11/04/2013 at 9:22 am #

    @BrooklynNellie. This generalized accusation has often put my little children close to orphan status. This is simply because I am a cyclist and people disregard my safety based on the antics of others. I never do any of the things people complain about, yet people accuse me of ignoring the rules simply because I am a cyclist.
    I have lost count of times cars/vans etc have raced by me at dangerous proximity or yelled abuse out through the window simply because they didn’t want to wait a few seconds.

    @Dave. You are right, as I tried to illustrate earlier, individuals break the rules not transport types. But it seems some people still insist on pointing the finger collectively.

  14. RobbieC 13/04/2013 at 12:28 pm #

    i think the article nailed it – its freedom, people who only drive cars think they have bought it (how many car ads show people in queues?) and get annoyed when they see someone else (who probably also drives) on a cycle has it and can get out of the queue they are stuck in.

    some cyclists need to learn social skills. I had a group shoot across a road and force me to slow down sharply. I vented about the highway code and was told to calm down by an idiot in a cagoule

  15. Dave 13/04/2013 at 1:37 pm #

    I have only been riding in London for six years, but I found that my awareness of a cyclist in the road was greatly increased when in a car, to the point when I am being driven by a friend (I no longer have a car) I call out ‘bike’ to alert my friends to a cyclist. As a result they have become more aware too.

    When I have had a puncture as a motorist, or some other mechanical problem I have never had another motorist stop and offer help. If I so much as stop and look down at my chain or tyre another cyclist male or female, will glide to a halt and offer support

    When another cyclist crosses paths with me we usually greet one another, or when stopped at a light we have a chat with each other. Try doing that with fellow pedestrians and see how far you get

  16. dave 14/04/2013 at 10:13 pm #

    Here’s what I think, having cycled in London for a couple of years.
    The idea often circulating in online cycling discussions that cyclists are all saints is obviously untrue; this seems to be born out both by comments here and my own experience of myself and other cyclists doing stupid, risky things.
    However, I have also seen the aftermath of two serious accidents in London involving cyclists, one of which resulted in death for the cyclist- a water truck was hosing the blood off the road when I passed the scene.
    I have also been shocked with two incidents within the last week where I was cycling perfectly sensibly and legally, and it seemed like a car and then a bus driver were almost trying to hit me.
    I think drivers and driving culture in general are symptomatic of wider problems of a destructive and unsustainable society. I think eventually we will see more public transport, more cycling provision, but it will be resource and environmental pressures that force it, rather than a sense of collective responsibly. Avoidable deaths will sadly continue till then.

  17. Goodwheel 17/04/2013 at 4:14 pm #

    I have never tried getting stuck in traffic inside a Porche or Ferrari but can only imagine that the background angry growl of the exhaust must wear one down eventually.

    Then along comes a machine possibly worth less than £100 that can just whiz by and weave in and out of traffic. Any wonder that driver frustration turns to anger.

  18. Dave 17/04/2013 at 4:28 pm #

    Goodwheel he should be happy he can flog his upmarket car and buy a really good bike , the coolest kit available, a security guard to protect it, a lawyer specializing in bike related matters,etc.

    When I sold my banger I could only afford a ride to work special. Read this and weep, petrol heads

  19. James 17/04/2013 at 10:09 pm #

    The video has moved, btw:

    • Andreas 18/04/2013 at 1:58 am #

      Thanks for posting link to the video James 🙂

  20. paulc 07/01/2015 at 12:36 pm #

    “so why should they get angry at a cyclist who can get to the front of a queue? ”

    they get angry because they have to overtake us again…

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