Does dehumanization of bikers make drivers more aggressive?

| Jun 29, 2019 | Motor Vehicle Accidents |

Even as other motor vehicle crashes trend downwards, car-bicyclist collisions have been increasing sharply in the U.S. over the past few years. According to federal data, there were 777 bicyclists killed in crashes with cars and trucks in 2017. Bicycling fatalities reached a low ebb in 2010, but since then the rate has jumped by 25%.

When people hit bikers, they often say that they simply didn’t see the biker coming. Yet the League of American Bicyclists reported in 2014 that 52% of cycling fatalities involved one of two scenarios. First, the biker was struck by a car from the rear. Second, the cyclist was struck by a car from the side.

It could be more than inattention. It’s possible that vehicle drivers aren’t vigilant enough about scanning the road for bicyclists — but some of these accidents may have been caused by driver aggression.

Let’s face it. Many drivers can’t stand bicyclists. They gum up traffic by taking up a full lane but riding much more slowly than cars drive. Bike lanes seem to take up valuable space that could be used for traffic. Watching out for them is a hassle.

How likely is it that at least some bicycle accidents are caused by aggression towards bikers? A group of researchers at the Queensland University of Technology recently tried to find out.

They chose to survey drivers about aggression, but also about the dehumanization of bikers.

“The idea is that if you don’t see a group of people as fully human, then you’re more likely to be aggressive toward them,” said one of the study’s authors.

Comparing cyclists to apes and cockroaches could be revealing

The researchers surveyed 442 Australian drivers, some of whom self-identified as cyclists, as well. They asked the drivers to place a bicyclist on a scale between apes and humans. This technique has been used in other studies to identify dehumanization of marginalized groups.

Then, because at least one Australian politician has referred to bikers as “cockroaches on wheels,” they asked the participants to place a cyclist on a scale between cockroaches and humans.

After averaging the results from both survey questions, the researchers found that drivers placed bicyclists, on average, at about 45% human. Drivers who said they were also bikers estimated cyclists at about 70% human, so even other cyclists were dehumanizing cyclists.

In another part of the research, the academics asked the drivers whether they had ever acted aggressively toward a biker, as opposed to mere harassment. It turned out that 17% had used their vehicle to intentionally block a biker. Another 11% said they had deliberately driven close to a biker, and 9% admitted cutting a biker off on purpose.

Interestingly, the amount of actual aggression reported by the survey respondents was closely tied to how much exposure they had to cyclists in their day-to-day lives. Drivers who encountered bikers at least once a week reported four times the aggression of people who encountered bikers less frequently.

Some drivers may be hostile enough toward bicyclists that they make aggressive moves. They may not even mean to actually hurt the cyclist, but they may forget that bikers are so much more vulnerable in crashes. In any case, they may pose a real hazard.

Bikers need to be extra-vigilant.