Word of the Day: Bikeism

Adrian, a psychology grad student in Australia, wrote in with mention of a disturbing episode in Australia, recounted here, of a car driver going after some cyclists in an “Around the Bay Day” event (for charity, mind you).

What one editorialist also found objectionable, however, was the link at the bottom of the page where readers could vote on that day’s opinion question. The question was: Are cyclists responsible road users?

Not really the first question that comes to mind after reading the original article (I’m almost afraid to know what the answer was). As the writer put it, “OK. If those hooligans had bowled over a bunch of grannies going to church, would readers be having their say on whether senior citizens are responsible road users?” A more contextually appropriate question to vote on, in my opinion, would have been: Should drivers who commit what is essentially aggravated assault with a deadly weapon have their driving rights permanently revoked? (uh, yeah)

The writer went on to coin the word “bikeism” to describe the dynamics he thought were at work — tarring an entire class of people with the extreme acts committed by a few (or a stereotypical image of that behavior). “Unfortunately, many motorists who don’t ride bikes and don’t understand cycling seem to think that all cyclists are ego-driven menaces who run red lights.”

Reading the article, I couldn’t help but think of the best report I’ve seen on this issue (it came out a few years ago and I’d be curious to know what more recent work has been done on this); namely, TRL report 549, “Drivers Perceptions of Cyclists,” by L. Basford, S. Reid, et al., prepared by the U.K.’s Transport Research Laboratory, and others.

The report describes a number of problems, ranging from driver’s poor understanding of the rights cyclists have to the roads, or the fact that drivers rank cyclists at the bottom of the “road user hierarchy,” to the idea that people who don’t cycle are less likely to view cyclists in a positive light, to the idea that drivers, essentially, tend to freak out a bit around cyclists (poor training, among other things).

But there are a few points in the report that speak most directly to the concept of “bikeism” (understood in a vein similar to ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’). So just to revisit TRL 549, and as you’re reading these bits, it’s not hard to substitute “cyclists” or “drivers” with the names of other groups that have been marginalized in, for example, a racist context.

“The underlying unpredictability of cyclists’ behaviour was seen by drivers as stemming from the attitudes and limited competence of the cyclists themselves, rather than from the difficulty of the situations that cyclists are often forced to face on the road (i.e. drivers made a dispositional rather than a situational attribution). Despite their own evident difficulties in knowing how to respond, drivers never attributed these difficulties to their own attitudes or competencies, nor did they do so in relation to other drivers (i.e. they made a situational attribution about their own and other drivers’ behaviour). This pattern of assignment of responsibility is characteristic of how people perceive the behaviour of those they consider to be part of the same social group as themselves, versus those seen as part of a different social group. In other words, drivers saw cyclists as an ‘out group,’ and blamed them accordingly for what was seen as negative behaviour, whilst exonerating members of the ‘in group’, namely themselves and other drivers.”

“Non-cyclists, on the other hand, were generally guilty of linking all cyclists to the same (usually negative) behaviour by association. This phenomenon is typical of the psychological tendency to regard members of a group as more similar to each other than is actually the case.”

On the “out group” notion, I’ve often wondered if the hostility and marginality cyclists often feel — I speak from experience — actually encourages some to adopt a certain “outlaw” stance, which then only feeds the cycle of behavior.

I won’t pursue the ‘bikeism’ metaphor any further, but I’d be curious to hear any opinions elaborations — does it exist? How can it be stopped? Is ‘segration,’ via sharrows and the like, the answer, or is “separate but equal” a better response?

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 28th, 2008 at 3:35 pm and is filed under Bicycles, Traffic Psychology, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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