Mea culpa musings (angry cyclist edition)

I screwed up. My latest column for BBC Future is about why cyclists enrage motorists. My argument is that cyclists offend the ‘moral order’ of the roads, evoking in motorists a feeling of outrage over perceived rule breaking.

Unfortunately, I included some loose words in my article that implied things I don’t believe and wasn’t arguing. Exhibit A:

Then along comes a cyclist, who seems to believe that the rules aren’t made for them, especially the ones that hop onto the pavement, run red lights, or go the wrong way down one-way streets.

This wrongly suggests both that I think the typical cyclists breaks the law (they don’t), and/or that motorists are enraged by cyclists’ law breaking. This is not the case, rather I am arguing that motorists are engaged by cyclists’ perceived rule breaking, where I mean rule in the sense of ‘convention’. Cyclists habitually, legally, and sensibly break conventions of car-driving such as waiting in queued traffic, moving at the speed limit or not under-taking.

Exhibit A has now been changed in the article to the more pleasing:

Then along come cyclists, innocently following what they see are the rules of the road, but doing things that drivers aren’t allowed to: overtaking queues of cars, moving at well below the speed limit or undertaking on the inside.

So, my bad and apologies for this. I should have been a lot clearer than I was. I’m just grateful that a few people understood what I was getting at (if you read the whole article I hope the correct interpretation I supported by the rest of the phrasing I use). The amount and vehemence of feedback has been quite surprising. Lots of people thought I was a frustrated driver who hated cyclists. In fact, the bike is my main form of transport. I’ve ridden nearly every day for over ten years (and been hit by a car once). For this article I was trying not to sound like the self-righteous cycling proto-fascist I feel like sometimes. I obviously succeeded. Perhaps too well.

Other people thought I was claiming that this was the only factor affecting road-user’s attitudes. I don’t think this. Obviously selective memory (for bad cyclists or drivers), in- group/out-group effects and the asymmetry in vulnerability all play a role. I did write a version of the article which laid out the conceptual space a bit clearer, but I decided it was boring to read, and really I wanted to talk about evolutionary game theory and make a novel – and, I thought, interesting – claim.

I sometimes think I should get “Telling the truth, just not the whole truth” translated into Latin so I can use it as the motto for the column. Each one I write someone comes back to me with something I missed out. If I tried to be comprehensive I’d end up with a textbook, instead of a 800 word magazine column. I don’t want to write textbooks, so I’m reasonably happy with leaving things out, but I do worry that there is a line you cross when telling some of the truth amounts to a deception or distortion of the whole truth. I’m trying, each time, not to cross that line. Feedback on how to manage this is welcome.

There were many other comments of all shades. You can ‘enjoy’ some of them on the BBC Future facebook page here. If you did leave a comment on email/facebook/twitter I’m sorry I couldn’t respond to all of them. I hope this post clarifies things a bit.

13 thoughts on “Mea culpa musings (angry cyclist edition)

  1. Another thought – from this blizzard of feedback/abuse I get some sense, I think, of why professional controversialists like Clarkson can get a kick out of what they do. Most things you write nobody comments on. Even if they say you are an idiot, at least they are paying attention. Like Oscar said “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about”.

  2. The study you cite is fascinating, but to link motorist/cyclist relations to altruistic punishment is tenuous. The case may be simpler: just as the settled community resents the presence of nomads (travellers) on account of certain freedoms they enjoy, the stalled motorist resents the cyclist filtering through the traffic. Nomadic life is older than settled life and bicycles came before cars. Both nomads’ and cyclists’ freedoms niggle, as a constant critique of the later inventions.

  3. Nothing like a little controversy to spice things up. As for cyclists vs. car-drivers, a couple of remarks from a fellow cyclist: for some reason, a lot of people turn into psychos when they hit the road, whatever the vehicle. That includes me by the way. And yes, cyclists tend to have a very relaxed relationship with the rules, as have pedestrians. Few people drive their car through a red light when there is no traffic for instance, but lots of pedestrians and cyclists do. Finally, many car-drivers do seem to think that cyclists are intruders on their roads.

  4. As for translating your motto in Latin, here’s my effort: “veritas dicere, at non tota”. I’m reasonably sure it’s correct (I can feel utter humiliation lurking around the corner…) but I have to admit it isn’t very elegant.

    BTW, pedestrians and cyclists do not drive their car through a red light, obviously.

  5. I agree so much with Andrew and I am both a motorist and a cyclist …. the feeling of freedom from petty things on two wheels is just great. The reaction of the motorists against the cyclists reminds me of when driving you find a way of getting out of the queue that nobody has spotted before you, this tends also to get very stern looks and very ripe language from a few people!

  6. You are clearly biased.

    I’m also biased. If I wrote an article, the title would be as follows:
    “Why cyclists hate cars”

  7. Oh dear. Tom, you are usually so *sensible*!

    It seems pretty obvious to me that your “loose wording” which you quote has been heavily influenced in tone by the very discourse you are attempting to interpret. It’s difficult for this not to happen – but I’m not surpised everyone misunderstood you. In fact I’m surpsied that you are surprised.

    And anyway Motorists don’t “hate cyclists” for heavens sake. You know your social psychology – you ought to know better!

  8. I don’t think Tom’s original article was biased but “Why cyclists hate cars” would certainly be an interesting follow-up article.

  9. @martin you are completely right – i let myself bow to the very discourse i was trying to take a critical perspective on. Thank you for pointing it out with kindness. I will be trying harder in future

  10. I notice that in some Asian countries–where bikes or scooters are the very common–there is much less road rage against them.

    And I’m guessing part of it is because car drivers are also cyclists so they can empathize with them.

  11. Tom, at the risk of veering too far off topic, I should note that the psychology study you mentioned is highly cultural dependent. It is not a characteristic of humans generally. When repeated in other settings, the same experiment has yielded very different results, even in some cases where participants punished those who they felt were contributing too much.

    For more details see this PDF (specifics on the studies in question are in section 3.1):
    http://www.psych.ubc.ca/~henrich/pdfs/Weird_People_BBS_final02.pdf

  12. I must say that I agree with Jake and Andrew above. If we do have a vehicular divide between those who only drive and those who (also) cycle then we have a problem with empathy; and it is a uni-directional problem since many of those who cycle will also drive. Now imagine Andrew’s nomad cyclist zipping past you as you sit in your car in a jam. “Bloody free-loading cyclist.” It’s easy to get into that frame of mind, isn’t it? On the other hand, if I also cycled but just chose to drive on that day it would have been more like a “if only I had cycled today” frame of mind. One creates antagonism, the other, empathy.

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