Do vehicle drivers even see bikers as human?

On Behalf of | Jul 5, 2019 | Bicycle Accidents |

It’s possible they may not, if a recent survey is to be believed. The implication is that, if drivers see cyclists as less than human, it could seem to justify taking less care around us. Or, motorists might even become aggressive.

The April study from Australian researchers was published in the journal Transportation Research, and the results were stark.

The study involved interviewing 442 Australian drivers, some of whom also identified themselves as bikers. The study participants were asked to rank the average biker on an evolutionary scale between ape and human. This is a technique that has been used in some other studies to identify the dehumanization of a marginalized group.

Then, because there had been recent headlines comparing bikers to cockroaches on wheels, the participants were asked to do the same thing on a scale from cockroach to human.

The researchers then combined the results from both models and found that motorists ranked cyclists at about 45% human. Indeed, the drivers who self-identified as bikers only rated cyclists as 70% human. That indicates that even other bikers tended to dehumanize bikers when they were in traffic.

Did the dehumanization translate into aggression toward bikers?

It appears that it did. In another part of the study, the participants were asked to reveal whether they had ever behaved aggressively toward bikers, as opposed to merely gritting their teeth or harassing them.

Shockingly, 17% of the respondents admitted to having used their car to block a cyclist intentionally. Another 11% admitted driving too close to a biker on purpose, and 9% had deliberately cut a biker off in traffic.

The study also found that the amount of aggressive behavior may increase with exposure to bikers. For example, drivers who encountered bikers at least once a week reported four times the aggressive behavior of drivers who encountered them less frequently than that.

That could have policy implications. As biking continues to increase in the U.S., there is a lot of pressure on drivers to “share the road” with bikers. If this study is any guide, being required to share the road may result in greater aggression. Alternatives like separate, protected bike lanes may be less likely to provoke drivers.

This information comes to us at a time when bicycling fatalities are at a high — and they’re rising. Traffic fatalities among bikers have risen by 25% since 2010 even though other types of traffic fatalities have gone down.

We should encourage more biking. It’s healthy, and it’s good for both the environment and our communities. How can municipalities and states work to reduce biking accidents?