Why Car Drivers Enrage Cyclists

In Uncategorized on February 18, 2013 at 3:48 am

They really don’t much, but…

Ah… the dance between car drivers and bike riders in the social contract of the road.  The friction between the two is pretty easy to understand.  Car drivers get sick as hell of cyclists rolling directly through stops and riding two or more abreast blocking traffic.  Cyclists get sick as hell of aggressive drivers who almost seem to be targeting them.  I’ve ridden a lot, I’ve driven a lot and I am the kind of person who cares if he is honest about the number of items he carries into the express line, so it was with an open mind and a lot of interest I encountered the headline “The Psychology of Why Cyclists Enrage Car Drivers“.  I really wanted to know!

I found the piece on top of Digg, a popular website whose main function is to let users discover, share and recommend web content.  Members submit a webpage  and the other members vote that page up or down.  If you make it to the top of the page, there is an implication of perceived value as a lot of people must have been reading it and voting this it up the Digg ladder.  As a committed bike commuter who also understands the frustrations of drivers towards bicycles, I was expecting to encounter a sort of “peer~reviewed” sound argument on the tension between the two.  The author posits this argument…

“It’s not simply because they are annoying, argues Tom Stafford, it’s because they trigger a deep-seated rage within us by breaking the moral order of the road.”

“Driving is a very moral activity – there are rules of the road, both legal and informal, and there are good and bad drivers.”  Stafford describes several ways in which car drivers must cooperate with each other to keep traffic moving.  Then he introduces bicycles overtaking lines of cars stopped at lights and moving at well below the automobile speed limit and posits that in the “game of coordination where we have to rely on each other to do the right thing”, going on to describe this cycling behavior as “cheating” in the game of traffic.  Comparing cyclists to tax cheats who derive benefits without contributing equally, Stafford trots out, with great fanfare… the “free rider problem”.

I’m not going to look it up, so I’ll have to rely on Stafford’s description of this economic and sociological theory that “…even if a bunch of selfish individuals (or genes) recognise (he’s British) the benefit of coming together to co-operate with each other, once the collective good has been created it is rational, in a sense, for everyone to start trying to freeload off the collective” with the ensuing threat of societal collapse.  The wheels have been wobbling on Stafford’s argument ever since the bike behavior with which he takes exception is actually legal operation of a bike in traffic, but now… they are starting to completely come off!

In making his argument, Stafford categorically rejects the seemingly common sense idea that drivers aren’t just mad at cyclists for acting like jerks and getting away with things drivers can’t.  Or that drivers are commonly understood to act more aggressively in their cars than, say… the grocery store line.  Instead he believes that drivers sense the threat of greater societal breakdown posed by bicyclists on the road and fortunately for Stafford there is yet another study in a scientific journal that ascribes it to… altruistic punishment.  At this point we are getting so far away from a sound logical argument that I begin to wonder… who is this guy writing the article?

Ohhhhh… he’s a in the Psychology department at a university!  Got it!  Things are becoming clearer to me… even if Stafford remains a little muddled!

So, the Fehr and Gachter study that shines a light on altruistic punishment organizes anonymous subjects into a social group, starts everyone out on equal footing, asks the members to contribute to the good of the group, some do, some don’t and the group appears to be on the hot rails to hell the free~rider problem fore~tells until… the contributing members slap the non~contributors into line by fining them and “Voila!”… group cohesion!  Society is saved and Stafford is convinced that car drivers rage at cyclists is a perfect example!

But there are a couple of problems.

Stafford summarizes the study’s conclusion “…that evolution has built into the human mind a hatred of free-riders and cheaters, which activates anger when we confront people acting like this – and it is this anger which prompts altruistic punishment. In this way, the emotion is evolution’s way of getting us to overcome our short-term self-interest and encourage collective social life.”

And elaborates…

“So now we can see why there is an evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists. Deep within the human psyche, fostered there because it helps us co-ordinate with strangers and so build the global society that is a hallmark of our species, is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don’t follow the same rules as cars.”

Perhaps there is an advantage in not being on the faculty of a university Psychology department where the only thing you can think to do is to slap the results of this study or that theory on top of every, single problem.  Maybe you can just ask some simple questions like… if the subjects of the study you are using for your argument were all anonymous to each other and doing the exact same thing… aren’t you more accurately describing car drivers interacting with… each other?  And since there are car drivers who don’t follow the rules and “cheat”… what point are you really making about bike riders?  Do other drivers REALLY not get mad at… other drivers?

It seems to me that alarm bells should have been going off in readers minds about the soundness of Stafford’s argument… instead of voting it up the Digg ladder.

At the very end, almost as a throw away remark, he mentions “that cyclists are playing an important role in a wider game of reducing traffic and pollution”, and misses the larger implication of that observation!  His whole construction about “free~riders”, “altruistic punishment” and the resultant “evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists” is more logically applied the other way!  A far more sound argument can be made that in a world of carbon~driven climate change and the horrific geo~political consequences of staying addicted to fossil fuel… the CAR DRIVERS are the “free~riders” and those of us who choose to ride instead of drive are by far the responsible actors and should be applying altruistic punishment towards them.

And deep down, maybe that actually IS “The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers”!


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