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Unlocking the psychology behind the driver/cyclist clash

New research shows stress-inducing roadway design can contribute to a drop in empathy by drivers toward cyclists.
(Getty Images)

Not too long ago, I was riding my bicycle near the corner of 9th and Carpenter behind a motor vehicle, which was behind another motor vehicle, which was behind a bus. No one was moving very fast, as is often the case on South Philadelphia’s narrow streets.

But that didn’t matter to the middle-aged man in the pickup truck behind me. Flustered and in a red-faced rage, he incorrectly told me I was legally required to get out of his way.

Ignoring him at first, I turned my head only when he threatened to violently run me over with his vehicle. I pointed to the car in front of me, and the one in front of that car. “No one’s going anywhere fast,” I said with a shrug.

But that only made him angrier. “I don’t care,” he yelled out the driver’s side window. “I’ll run you down!”

Sound familiar? If you’re a person who rides a bike, it probably does. A recent study from Portland State University which surveyed 676 “frequent drivers around the country” found decisions on the road aren’t always made logically. And the study may provide insight into why it’s so important to separate motor vehicle from bicycle traffic as we build street infrastructure for the future.

According to the study’s findings, given there is only so much space on out streets, and only so much transportation funding to go around, a sense of competition often occurs. “When you put people in those circumstances, they act like a member of their group and not an individual,” the study’s author, Tara Goddard, PhD, told Streetsblog.

Drivers, the study found, often don’t want to hold up their own group—and actually feel intense pressure to not slow the traffic behind them. Not only does that create a situation in which there is less empathy for the most vulnerable road user in the street, but drivers may try riskier maneuvers when passing cyclists.

“We know that when people are under stress, they make more errors in their motor skills,” Goddard told Streetsblog. “Drivers, whether they mean to or not, are behaving unsafely or badly around cyclists.”

Such situations occur because people on bicycles and motor vehicle users are expected to share city streets. And while people on bicycles make mistakes, too, their mistakes don’t have the same potential to hurt other road users like that of a guy in a pick up truck who thinks he’d get to his endpoint two minutes faster if the bicyclist were out of the way.

And as I’ve been writing in this column for the past year, and the most recent study at Portland State seems to conclude, the answer—as much as it pains some to admit—is going to be separated roadways for cyclists and motor vehicles.

“While attitudes may be difficult or take time to shift, roadway design can work immediately by either fully separating modes, or slowing down interactions so that drivers can rely more on executive function and less on implicit cognitions when looking for, seeing, and behaving toward bicyclists,” notes Goddard’s report. “Infrastructure that designates portions of the roadway space to certain users may help alleviate the tensions and difficulties that drivers in this study felt when maneuvering around bicyclists.”