I first read about a study about a year ago and was reminded of it recently.
It found that people tend to dehumanize the drivers of cars, but immediately recognize and react to the humanity of cyclists.
The most obvious example was their use of language.
The study found folks tend to say things like, “That car cut me off!” or, “Did you see the way that minivan was speeding?” But they also tended to say, “The guy on that bike cut me off!” or, “Did you see the way that woman was riding her bike?” Or, in my case, “Did you see that old, slow clown on his bike?”
Subtle, sure, but the gist was that, to most observers, cyclists precede their transport, while cars took precedent over their drivers.
Curiously, I find myself thinking and speaking the same way — when I’m in my car. On my bike, however, I tend to put the driver first.
Some of it is the unavoidable intimacy.
Separated by a couple of panes of glass and sheets of steel, two drivers are more distant by definition, and they usually are capable of widening the gap more quickly than if one were on two wheels.
By necessity, however, cyclists have to pay closer attention to their immediate surroundings. In addition to trying to determine the “attitude” of the auto, I’m always trying to figure what’s going on behind the windshield, too. Do the eyes see, or are they only looking? Is that a cell phone stuck to the head? Why is that person cackling maniacally? And I’m often closer to other drivers when I’m on my bike than in my car. All the time I’m having conversations with folks stopped at stop lights; I can’t remember the last time I had a talk car-to-car.
The study authors suggested that the immediate personalization should work in cyclists’ favor. Drivers, recognizing cyclists to be humans, after all, likely would give wider berth to ensure the person’s safe passage.
But not so fast. The group found that drivers gave wider berth to cyclists who weren’t wearing helmets and to cyclists who appeared to be women (note the language; in this case, the cyclist happened to be a man wearing a wig, thus only appearing to be a woman). Male cyclists wearing helmets received the closest passes from cars.
The reason: In addition to recognizing the humanity of the riders, drivers also made split-second assumptions about those humans. Males, they reasoned, were better riders than women; riders with helmets were more experienced and, thus, better riders than the lidless riders.
Drivers didn’t make the same snap judgments about cars (or their dehumanized drivers). It’s hard, after all, to make a judgment against a Camry, or an F-150, or a Yugo. Well, maybe it’s OK to judge a Yugo.
Regardless, it’s almost enough to make me ditch the brain bucket in favor of a wig.