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Survey shows drivers see cyclists as less than fully human

Fifty-two percent of fatal bicycle accidents involve one of two scenarios. The first is the rear-end collision, where a car strikes a cyclist from behind. The other is where a car strikes a cyclist from the side. In both cases, it’s almost certain that the driver was at fault.

Having cyclists on the road can be an annoyance for drivers. Cyclists are generally entitled to use the full lane of traffic, but it’s tempting to squeeze past them. They’re slow. They’re a bit unpredictable. They gum up traffic that would otherwise flow more freely.

But they’re still human beings, right? They are, and we need to be careful around cyclists, who are much more vulnerable in traffic accidents than are people in cars and trucks.

Yet some people have called cyclists things like “cockroaches on wheels” and have even advocated taking them out and shooting them.

Cycling injuries and fatalities are way up

Fatalities among U.S. bikers have risen by 25% since 2010. In 2017, an estimated 777 cyclists were killed in traffic wrecks with cars. In 2015, some 45,000 bikers were injured in traffic crashes. Meanwhile, other traffic fatalities are trending downward. What’s the explanation?

It’s hard to say, but some speculate that some of them could be tied to the attitudes drivers have about cyclists. Researchers from the Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety at Queensland University of Technology in Australia decided to find out.

Drivers -- even those who are also cyclists -- rate bikers as sub-human

The research began with a survey of 443 Australian drivers, some of whom also identified as bicyclists. An ape-to-human scale had previously been used to gauge whether certain marginalized groups were being demonized, and the scale was used for this research. The drivers were asked to place cyclists in the hierarchy between apes and humans.

The survey participants were also asked to place bikers in another hierarchy -- this one between humans and cockroaches.

In both cases, over half of the survey respondents admitted they see cyclists as less than fully human. Non-cyclists rated the average biker as 45% human. Even cyclists rated other bikers as about 70% human, considering both surveys. Bikers were dehumanizing other bikers -- or at least the stereotype of bikers.

Could dehumanization increase aggression toward cyclists?

Did that dehumanization translate into behavior that could put real cyclists at risk? According to the researchers, 17% of the survey respondents said that they had deliberately blocked a cyclist’s path with their car. Another 11% admitted intentionally driving too close to a biker. And 9% said they had deliberately cut off a biker.

Drivers also reported more aggression towards cyclists with greater exposure. For example, drivers who shared the road with bikers at least once a week reported four times as much aggressive behavior toward them than drivers who were around cyclists less frequently.

It's not clear how scientific this study may have been, but it can still offer important insights into what bikers are up against when they head out on the road. It may not only be driver negligence that puts bikers at risk, but actual aggression and reckless disregard for the danger to the cyclist.

The researchers say that more work will be necessary to determine what could be done to reduce aggression towards bicyclists. In the meantime, bikers need to be ever-vigilant about cars and their drivers’ intentions.

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