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Cyclists and the “Moral Order of the Road”

Posted on February 19, 2013 · Posted in Bikes, Commuting, Laws

Yes, I suppose those of us on bikes may be “annoying” to those behind the wheel, but this BBC piece from psychologist Tom Stafford posits that driver antagonism toward cyclists stems from something deeper – an innate sense that bikes disrupt the “moral order” of the road.  In other words, we’re cheaters, what with our riding-between-cars and jumping-green-lights and such.  And that makes drivers mad.

Maybe so, but one wonders how useful it is to plumb the reptilian driver brain.  There’s something about driving that lends itself to all manner of antisocial behavior.  Present company included; as someone who rides far more than he drives, I may be more aware of it these days, but I am certainly no less susceptible.

In driver mode we are paragons of impatience.   We take offense at the slightest affront.  I’m sure a psychiatrist would have some theories about what causes this: the shield of metal and glass between us and the rest of world; sublimation of feelings of powerlessness translated via an internal combustion engine; unresolved childhood trauma.  But whatever lies behind it, we act while driving in ways that would be tolerated in very few settings.

So if it’s normal for drivers to curse out someone with the temerity to merge in front of them in a perfectly legal merge lane (thereby lengthening the offended driver’s trip by a second or two), it should be expected that drivers would take umbrage at that alien invader of their environment, the bicyclist.  Particularly if the cyclist is slowing them down, or doing something dangerous.

Or even just breaking the rules.  As Stafford points out, heaps of cognitive research points to people being happy to dish out “altruistic punishments” – consequences that carry a cost to the punisher without yielding any direct benefit in return.  Think of the jaywalk scolds (a phenomenon that may be unique to Seattle), or drivers who get pissed and honk because a cyclist moves to the head of a line of stopped traffic or jumps a green light.

And I don’t know that there is a solution, at least not in the US.  It’s not safe to try and navigate any US city on a bike while scrupulously obeying rules that have been designed for cars.  That means adapting, playing by our own rules and sometimes doing things that rule-addled drivers find maddening (like creating our own bike boxes, taking the lane and running red lights).

Maybe the only answer is getting more people confidently riding bikes – so that they can be more enlightened drivers whenever they need to get behind the wheel.