Why Do Drivers Hate Cyclists?

Practically any mention of bikes versus cars on the internet incites a flamewar. It’s a curious phenomenon, particularly given the minor threat bikes pose to cars. Nonetheless, I’m convinced that drivers are more afraid of bicyclists than vice versa.

I cannot tell you very much about how to get traffic to your website or manage comments. One thing I can guarantee, however: write an article about bikes, safety, and transportation, and you will get a flood of commenters. Most of them will be angry; most of the angerbears will be angry at cyclists, which is something that’s long fascinated me. And the answer, I think, is a bit of a paradox, but it might be good news.

For instance, Jon Hilkevitch wrote a piece for the Tribune on how the Active Transportation Alliance wants IDOT to count doorings: i.e. when the driver of a parked car opens his or her door into the path of a cyclist (Steven Vance has been doing some excellent work on this, along with many other bike issues). The worst injury any of my friends has suffered on a bike came from a dooring. It’s a terrifying possibility, and one that’s hard for cyclists to avoid: I try to keep an eye out for the telltale signs of an opening door–brake lights turning off, the flash of an arm in the side-view mirror–but you never know when it’s going to be too late.

Don’t tell that to the commenters, though:

No need to waste more taxpayers monies. Very simple solution, stay off the streets.  When I want to ride I go to a park with bike trails. Those that wish to ride in traffic need to obey the rules of the road. The most logical way to reduce this type of accident is for bike riders to stay in the center of the lane, away from the vehicles. They should also be licensed and carry valid registration and insurance. They run into the vehicles door and should pay the repair.

I lump these biking folk into the same catagory as I put smokers crying that they can’t pollute our collective lungs. If they are stupid enough to ride a bike in traffic, are they really worth saving from themselves? You know the risks yet continue this destructive behavior? In the end you get what you deserve then.

It would be like bringing a spoon to a gun fight. You would have to be an idiot to ride a bike in traffic, yet somehow these bike riders are incapable of understanding even that. I for one am not surprised.

With bicycles causing so much damage to our cars, why aren’t they forced to carry insurance?

We pay to pave the roads. If a separate infrastructure were to be built, bike riders should be required to have [plates, licenses and insurance so there would be revenue to pay for it, but no, Mr -Streets-are-for-bicycles wouldn’t want to pay for that. They want everything for free.

Whatever the reporting requirements, it seems pretty clear that the bicyclists are generally the “at fault” party in this type of collision.  I ride bicycles occasionally and my motorcycle quite often.  It’s irresponsible and foolhardy to put yourself in a position where you cannot be seen until the last moment, if at all, by people getting out of their cars.  There seems to be, among many bicyclists, a sense of entitlement to ride like an idiot, without real regard for their safety, then cry “foul” when the inevitable occurs.

(When I bike, I’m not so much afraid of drivers as commenters.)

It’s not just here. In New York, the big political war right now is over a bike lane on Prospect Park West:

“We’ve never seen anything like this in the realm of neighborhood-level bike advocacy,” says Aaron Naparstek, creator of the pro-cycling site ­Streetsblog and co-founder of the advocacy group Park Slope Neighbors. “It’s crazy. Gibson Dunn is the law firm that represented George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore in 2000. Now they’re working to get rid of a bike lane. Think about that.”

And it’s not just angry anonymites on the internet. John Cassidy, a New Yorker staffer and respected economics journalist, unleashed a crass broadside against cyclists as part of the great Prospect Park West debate. He got the flame war he was asking for, not just from cyclists but from colleague Hendrik Hertzberg and fellow econ journalists like Felix Salmon and Olaf Storbeck. Storbeck does an excellent job rebutting Cassidy’s complaints about “free” parking, and Ryan Avent of The Economist takes on the absurdity of the “free rider” charge made against bikers. If you really want to get deep in the weeds, Salmon’s Wired profile of Charles Komanoff and his Balanced Transportation Analyzer is a good introduction to the economics of traffic.

I’ve never lived overseas, so my evidence that anti-bicyclist sentiment is almost uniquely American is entirely circumstantial. But a friend of mine, an avid biker, recently sent a dispatch from Tblisi in which he compares biking in the Georgian city to Chicago. Despite the chaotic traffic there, it’s safer. Among his reasons:

The final reason is the lack of animosity. In most American cities, there is a certain group of drivers who actively resent the encroachment of cyclists onto “their” roads. These guys will deliberately make cyclists’ lives miserable, simply for being on the road. They will cut in front of you, honk their horns to try and scare you, or spray you with windshield cleaning fluid (I’m not the kind of cyclist to key someone’s car or bash their windows with a U-lock, but I was pretty close with the windshield wiper guy). I think that this attitude is only possible because American roads are so pleasant to drive on and American drivers so law-abiding–in Tbilisi, the average driver has to contend with so many things getting in their way that anyone who flew into a frothing rage at the slightest infringement on “their” patch of pavement would get arrested instantly. Once again, chaos makes for safer biking–rather than an “intruder” into the automobile’s rightful domain, drivers view cyclists as simply another obstacle to be avoided.

The most convincing part of this, for me, is the argument that Georgian traffic is so fraught with obstacles that cyclists don’t raise an eyebrow. On the other hand, I’m not sure about my friend’s contention that the novelty of commuter biking in Tblisi makes it safer. As Tom Vanderbilt, author of the excellent 2008 book Traffic, writes in Outside:

As various studies have found, the more cyclists and cycling infrastructure a town has, the safer it becomes statistically, not just for cyclists but for drivers and pedestrians alike. When New York City put a protected bike lane on Ninth Avenue, some protested it as unsafe for people on foot. But since the lane’s opening, pedestrian injuries on Ninth have dropped by 29 percent. Last year, as miles of bike lanes were added, New York had its best pedestrian-safety record ever.

I’m more convinced by Vanderbilt’s argument that ignorance of the laws governing biking is responsible for a lot of the discord, which partly explains the misguided belief that roads belong to the cars. It’s explicitly illegal to door someone, and bikes are legally required to ride as far to the right as possible in Chicago and in Illinois. If you don’t know that, and many of the commenters clearly don’t, the doored bicyclist looks to be twice at fault.

What would appear to be constant, blatant lawbreaking–beyond just the obvious, like cyclists blowing red lights, which irritates me too–has to figure into what Vanderbilt calls a “bikelash.” But the most compelling argument I’ve ever read about anger comes from a lengthy thread about bikes and road rage. In short, fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the dark side:

I think dismissing anti-biker-rage as “people are assholes” is too simple, and as an explanation it doesn’t explain.

I drive on roads (in semi-rural NJ) where there are a lot of bicyclists. I used to be one of them, until it got to be more dangerous than I was comfortable with.

As a driver, cyclists scare me, they make me tense and wary, because I know how easy it would be for me to hurt them. I think there are a huge number of Americans whose reaction to being afraid, especially in their cars, is rage. They can’t acknowledge that they’re afraid, so they channel it into anger.

I read this two years ago, and I still haven’t forgotten it; it reminded me of Keith Bradsher’s excellent book on SUVs, High and Mighty, in which he documents how the intersection between fear and aggression on the road helped popularize the vehicles:

‘’Minivan people want to be in control in terms of safety, being able to park and maneuver in traffic, being able to get elderly people in and out,'’ Mr. Schaafsma said. ‘’S.U.V. owners want to be more like, ‘I’m in control of the people around me.’ ‘’

[snip]

Sport utilities are designed to appeal to Americans’ deepest fears of violence and crime, Dr. Rapaille said. People’s earliest associations with sport utilities are wartime Jeeps with machine guns mounted on the back, he explained. Sport utilities are ‘’weapons'’ and ‘’armored cars for the battlefield,'’ he said.

Or maybe I just want to believe it: the idea that these angry drivers are afraid of cyclists, and the idea that fear is what makes them so angry, makes me a lot more sympathetic to whoever it is that leaves the angry comments that inevitably follow any discussion of cars and bikes. Fear I understand, and it’s something that can be addressed with good public policy. If it’s just inchoate rage, that’s too far above (or below) my head.

 

Photograph: waferboard (CC by 2.0)

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comments
3 years ago
Posted by MrJM

Whet,

I think you're on to something with this "fear" thing. I know that part of my irrational anger towards some cyclists is due to the feeling that they are making the road unsafer. When I see someone pedaling down a main thoroughfare wearing asphalt colored clothing and no helmet, I think, "If that guy doesn't have sense enough to lookout for himself -- dumbass is gonna get us both killed!" Sure, he isn't as irresponsible as the car drivers talking and texting on their phones, but if those twits swerve into my lane, unlike the cyclists, they probably won't be crushed to death under my tires.

So please wear a helmet, cyclists. Not only could it save your life, it lets the rest of us know your head isn't up your ass.

-- MrJM

3 years ago
Posted by schriss

Great post. One thing I'm challenged with, though, is that fear leads to irrational behavior, and it's difficult to have a rational conversation at that point, even when removed from any immediate danger/emotion/situation.

My favorite anecdote is from last year's National Bike Summit, when it was pointed out that the bicycle lobby had gotten the attention and the enmity of the Teamsters when it came to transportation funding: Think about that -- truckers are paying attention to the bicyclists. Finally!

3 years ago
Posted by anysuchname

hm, I don't know about the fear point. I both bike and drive, and behind the wheel I'm terrified of hitting a cyclist, sure, but that doesn't make me hate or behave aggressively toward them, because I'm NOT AN IDIOT. do I see cyclists frequently do stupid things? sure, but I see the same if not more frequently from car drivers. as anyone who has ridden in a car with me can attest, I rage at drivers FAR more than I rage at cyclists. because the drivers have the capacity to KILL someone (yes, a cyclist can hurt a pedestrian, too, but rarely does death happen).

and yes, I have a Corolla and know how to maneuver it and exactly how much space it takes up. rarely are SUV or minivan drivers able to do this, and again, their vehicles, being larger, have a much higher capacity to injure/kill someone than my 2600 lb car does (assuming an SUV is ~4000 lb and a minivan at ~6000 lb)


so perhaps the focus should be on those who strictly drive and don't ride a bike? even so, I'm for the asshole theory - as in, I'm sure these same people are rude to the checkout people at the grocery store, or the janitor in their office building, or in some other area of their lives.

3 years ago
Posted by MichelleT

I have no problem sharing the road with cyclists ... as long as everyone is obliged the follow the same traffic laws and as long as everyone is penalized equally for breaking those laws.

Yes, I'm afraid of hitting and maiming cyclists. But mainly I'm angry because many cyclists simply do not feel obliged to stop at stop signs or red lights, yet they are incensed when they feel drivers are not paying enough attention.) By swerving in and out of the flow of traffic and coasting through traffic signals, cyclists make it more dangerous for everyone on the road. (I once had a cyclist-friend tell me that for her to stop at every stop sign would cause her to lose momentum. She said drivers in cars didn't have to worry about that, but cyclists don't like to lose momentum. Well, big deal I say. Traffic laws weren't written to address cyclists' momentum issues.)

If police are going to ticket a driver for unsafe driving or rolling through a stoplight, they should also ticket cyclists for the same offenses.

I travel alongside packs of cyclists nearly every day when driving down Elston/Milwaukee on the way to work. The vast majority of them seem to be careful and cautious. But there are enough of the "other" variety to cause havoc for everyone around them, endangering themselves, other bikers and, yes, drivers of cars.

3 years ago
Posted by sdifjsoitse

I wish I could say that even half the cyclists I see are following traffic laws, but it’s just not true. It’s frustrating to even be near them because you cannot account for which type of cyclist they are (law abiding versus standard).
The following things are illegal: not stopping at a red traffic light, not stopping at a stop sign, and going the wrong way on a one way street (just to name 3). That applies to all operators. But your average bicyclist seems to think nothing of doing any of these as they see fit. Well, it’s not up to them and their judgment in a specific situation, it’s a law. At a four way stop, I take my turn when it’s my turn, and I’ve nearly hit a few cyclists because of it. I just honk, generally. But I wouldn’t say I have this fear you speak of. If they want to have an attitude (and cognitive dissonance about the fact that my car could kill them), then I’m certainly not going to worry about it.
There should be licensing of bicycles and bicyclists, and they should be ticketed when laws are broken, escalating to impounding the bike. There are some issues with enforcement (how young to start, do the bikes get a plate, where does the manpower come from), but imagine how nice it would be if there were actual repercussions to riding recklessly that got those people off the road. Not to mention that it would also take in funds that would quell some of the ‘drivers own the roads’ argument that some people have (I don’t really share that view to begin with so I can’t really speak to it. I think all taxpayers have rights to the streets, but some sort of proportional City Sticker for bikes would seem fairer to me than nothing at all). Legitimizing bikes and bicyclists is the solution to getting cars and bikes to play nice.

3 years ago
Posted by ABikeCommuter

Before another rash of "GRRR those darn cyclists and their lawbreaking ways!!!!" posts, please review the following: <a href="http://washcycle.typepad.com/home/2008/07/the-myth-of-the.html">The Myth of the Scofflaw Cyclist</a> and let he who comes to a complete stop at every stop sign throw the first stone.

3 years ago
Posted by MrJM

From ''The Myth of the Scofflaw Cyclist'': ''But we all know it's safer for cyclists to run lights than it is for cars.''

But we all know that people who preface false statements with the phrase ''but we all know'' are not credible.

-- MrJM

3 years ago
Posted by SophieB

Now that the weather is warmer, I've been planning to take my bike somewhere to have it tricked out such that I am more visible on the roads. Just for kicks, I recently downloaded a copy of the IL state publication entitled Bicycle Rules of the Road, which can be downloaded as a PDF (http://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/publications/pdf_publications/dsd_a143.pdf). Note that this document states cyclists are required to obey traffic signals... it's unlikely that you will ever see one receive a ticket for a traffic violation.

After having found myself on both sides of this debate for some time, an idea has begun to creep into my mind, based in part on observations made while piloting both an automobile and a bicycle. To wit, bad behavior is ubiquitous. About a week or two ago, I suddenly felt like I was going to vomit while I was driving westbound on the Ike. Rather than risk endangering myself and others by allowing this event to occur while I was driving, I engaged my turn signal and began to maneuver the vehicle off the expressway. It will come as a surprise to no one that a "gentleman" in a large, gold Buick sped up to close the gap between his car and the one in front of him, sounding his horn. Isolated and oblivious to my plight, his main concern being to preserve the 10 or so feet of freedom afforded to him in stop and go traffic.

That has to be a sign of encroaching mental dysfunction of some kind. And it seems to bear out that everyone is just so damned angry, all the time... never more so than when they are trying to get somewhere. Very few things are done safely in anger. This is especially true for when one is navigating in traffic and pointing fingers.

There exists no applicable argument for allowing automobile traffic into certain areas of any metropolis. I hear that some places in Europe have come to just that conclusion and have restricted traffic to pedestrians and cyclists. As the saying goes, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to put one and two together to make three. Or, in this case, carbon monoxide, road congestion and all the deleterious effects that has on our physical and mental health.

Sadly, any solution that starts with the words "we should" is doomed to fail. However, I would like to use my bicycle more than my car over the summer. So I want to know what I can do, personally, to address this disconnect in order to ride my bike safely. Other than, "When in doubt, yield" (a personal mantra, regardless of how many wheels are under me).

3 years ago
Posted by SophieB

Now that the weather is warmer, I've been planning to take my bike somewhere to have it tricked out such that I am more visible on the roads. Just for kicks, I recently downloaded a copy of the IL state publication entitled Bicycle Rules of the Road, which can be downloaded as a PDF (http://www.cyberdriveillinois.com/publications/pdf_publications/dsd_a143.pdf). Note that this document states cyclists are required to obey traffic signals... it's unlikely that you will ever see one receive a ticket for a traffic violation.

After having found myself on both sides of this debate for some time, an idea has begun to creep into my mind, based in part on observations made while piloting both an automobile and a bicycle. To wit, bad behavior is ubiquitous. About a week or two ago, I suddenly felt like I was going to vomit while I was driving westbound on the Ike. Rather than risk endangering myself and others by allowing this event to occur while I was driving, I engaged my turn signal and began to maneuver the vehicle off the expressway. It will come as a surprise to no one that a &quot;gentleman&quot; in a large, gold Buick sped up to close the gap between his car and the one in front of him, sounding his horn. Isolated and oblivious to my plight, his main concern being to preserve the 10 or so feet of freedom afforded to him in stop and go traffic.

That has to be a sign of encroaching mental dysfunction of some kind. And it seems to bear out that everyone is just so damned angry, all the time... never more so than when they are trying to get somewhere. Very few things are done safely in anger. This is especially true for when one is navigating in traffic and pointing fingers.

There exists no applicable argument for allowing automobile traffic into certain areas of any metropolis. I hear that some places in Europe have come to just that conclusion and have restricted traffic to pedestrians and cyclists. As the saying goes, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to put one and two together to make three. Or, in this case, carbon monoxide, road congestion and all the deleterious effects that has on our physical and mental health.

Sadly, any solution that starts with the words &quot;we should&quot; is doomed to fail. However, I would like to use my bicycle more than my car over the summer. So I want to know what I can do, personally, to address this disconnect in order to ride my bike safely. Other than, &quot;When in doubt, yield&quot; (a personal mantra, regardless of how many wheels are under me).

3 years ago
Posted by Steve A

&quot;The most logical way to reduce this type of accident is for bike riders to stay in the center of the lane, away from the vehicles.&quot;

What is wrong with that? It's the way I ride every day.

3 years ago
Posted by AZDiver

I can give you a very easy answer to the statement "that anti-bicyclist sentiment is almost uniquely American is entirely circumstantial:" Yes, the anti-bicyclist sentiment is ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY uniquely American. I moved to the states from Germany and have traveled extensively all over Europe. NOWHERE did I ever hear the kind of crap bicyclists have to put up in this country. I commute by bike on a daily basis, and the daily humiliation we as bikers face in the US have actually amounted to so much frustration on my part that I'm considering moving back just because of that.

3 years ago
Posted by eclectic_reader

About doorings you say:

&quot;It's a terrifying possibility, and one that's hard for cyclists to avoid&quot;

This is false. It is in fact one of the most easily avoided types of accident. The solution is obvious - ride farther left. Far enough so that if a Cadillac coupe driver throws his door open, you don't have to swerve an inch to miss it. I state this as a commuter with 27 years and over 150,000 miles experience, a former League Cycling Instructor, and someone who has ridden past flung open doors and has never been doored. Because I ride farther left.

3 years ago
Posted by keencyclist

You say "I'm more convinced by Vanderbilt's argument that ignorance of the laws governing biking is responsible for a lot of the discord" and then in the next sentence claim that the law says you must ride as far as right as possible. In fact, it says &amp;quot;ride as close as practicable and safe&amp;quot; with a whole bunch of exceptions, which is VERY DIFFERENT.

One of those exceptions is &amp;quot;When reasonably necessary to avoid . . . parked . . . vehicles.&amp;quot;

Don't ride in the door zone. Don't ride in the door zone. Don't ride in the door zone.

Ignorance, fear, and loathing does kill and injure cyclists. But not by getting run down from behind, but by scaring bicyclists into doing dangerous things. Don't ride to the right of right-turning traffic, even if the bike lane suggests you should be there. Don't ride on the sidewalk. Did I remind you not to ride in the door zone?

3 years ago
Posted by The King

Fear is absolutely what the real problem is. It is driving all kinds of uncivil behavior in this country right now. People are afraid that the lifestyle they have grown up with is being taken from them.

I think the person aggressively driving the big SUV sees the cyclist as emblematic of a future without cheap fuel - a future with hardships they are afraid to face. It's easy for them to objectify and lash out at those who are weaker and exposed. Especially when it can be done anonymously.

This country is so dependent on its gods of metal. They are going to let us down. And when they do, God help us.

3 years ago
Posted by The King

Fear is absolutely what the real problem is. It is driving all kinds of uncivil behavior in this country right now. People are afraid that the lifestyle they have grown up with is being taken from them.

I think the person aggressively driving the big SUV sees the cyclist as emblematic of a future without cheap fuel - a future with hardships they are afraid to face. It's easy for them to objectify and lash out at those who are weaker and exposed. Especially when it can be done anonymously.

This country is so dependent on its gods of metal. They are going to let us down. And when they do, God help us.

3 years ago
Posted by dariaclone

Isn't there a sense in which American drivers aren't use to sharing the road with anyone? If we shared with streetcars, buses, trams, perhaps we would be more used to sharing the road with bicyclists? And would have learned to do it all our lives? I honestly think I'm nervous when driving in the midst of a lot of cyclists because it is a new experience (increase in cyclists, relatively new to the City, etc.). But I still wish there was a better solutions for bike lanes.

But I don't think cyclists v. drivers is a fair dichotomy. I bike frequently in the summer (with a toddler in a trailer), my spouse regularly commutes via bike. But, we also drive. And I want to feel safe while biking, yet comfortable in being a safe driver while drive.

3 years ago
Posted by ews

The law you cite actually says that cyclists shall ride as close as &quot;practicable&quot; to the right side. As I more or less said in the comments of the Tribune article, riding in the door zone on tight streets isn't practicable, so I take as much lane as I need. I also hog the lane on certain sections of Halsted, Damen, and Grand to avoid potholes, as riding in them isn't practicable either. It is in these instances when I get the most honks (or the occasional retard that tries to pass on the right).

3 years ago
Posted by Blockquote

The country's postwar infrastructure -- and there's a lot of it -- was built on the premise that America would never be without automobiles. In the suburb where I grew up, there was no getting anywhere without driving, everything miles apart. There's a small downtown area, but over the last 60 years the town fanned out along the two state highways that cut through it. Such developments are not accidental.

For a probably large percentage of the population, drivers are accustomed to the full and privileged use of the roadways, and many probably still assume the privilege will be theirs into perpetuity. That's to say that there's an established order and balance in the flow of traffic, against which bikers look like rolling chaos, come to upset the universe.

When I bike I force the drivers beside me into epistemological crisis -- my presence is new and wrong. And since it's a tremendous amount of work, and not to mention deeply emotional work, to recalibrate their understanding of the cosmos to accommodate this novelty that happens to be me, pedaling past, in that split-second of time they have to react, they tend to default to the easy answer. Namely, that I should be off the streets.

3 years ago
Posted by pedalmore

Howdy--

It's not dooring someone that's illegal, it's opening your door into traffic. That's an important destinction for those drivers who seem to feel cyclists should be liable for damage in a dooring incident. You are responsible for checking for oncoming traffic before you open your door. If a semi takes your door off the hinges, you'll be buying a new door for yourself and a new bumper for the semi. This isn't some special treatment reserved for cyclists.
Happy Trails,
Ron Georg
Corvallis, OR

3 years ago
Posted by aaron d

i've been a bike rider all my three decades, and abandoned my car about 6 years ago. i do own a truck however that i use for the occasional job or crosstown apartment move to do a friend a 'solid.' as such, paying for my b-truck sticker and plates, i embrace my sense of entitlement to the road (as a bicyclist). i do think bicyclists however should be required to have lights. it's stupid to not have them, or to have your batteries so low that your one blinky LED underneath your seatpost is visible to no one. i think motorists are afraid of hitting bicycles and get angry that someone basically makes the motorist responsible for their life by acting negligently - not making themselves visible.

my main point however, is that a motorist is not always a motorist. when a motorist steps out of a car they then become a pedestrian. i have been witness to too many incidents of bicyclists not yielding, and almost hurting pedestrians. slow down! yield! those pedestrians will be the angry motorists and remember how you showed them no respect. put a front light on for pedestrians to see you coming - and not be afraid - put a rear light on for motorists to see you - and not be afraid.

be bright! wear a light!

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