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.
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.
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.