In my last Legally Speaking column, Bikes vs. Cars, I recounted some of this summer’s more egregious road rage incidents between motorists and cyclists, all of which happened in rapid-fire succession over a period of several weeks. As I noted in conclusion, although these stories may have seemed like “a new kind of road rage,” as Newsweek put it, for seasoned cyclists, the stories were more an indication that the daily violence cyclists encounter had finally managed to capture the attention of the public-at-large.
But more importantly, I observed that the larger questions remained unasked, and unanswered in the media: Why are cyclists the daily targets of road violence, and what can cyclists do to change that reality? This week, we’re going to look for some answers as to why these road rage incidents occurred, and next week, we’ll continue with a discussion of how anger becomes road rage, and strategies for changing the cycling environment for the better.
As I observed in the last column, it would be tempting to say it’s just the summer heat, but we know that isn’t true. For example, recall that in “Attack of the abominable snow (plow) man,” cyclist Jeff Frings wrote in to describe his battle with Milwaukee officialdom after a snow plow operator buzzed him on December 15. Nevertheless, there are additional factors that come into play in the summer, which may have made road rage — especially road rage involving cyclists — manifest more frequently this summer. First, as the weather turns fair, more fair-weather cyclists come out to ride. Add in record gas prices this summer, and even more people than usual are dusting off the bikes hanging in their garages, with a thought to putting less of their hard-earned money in the gas tank. Those two factors mean that there are more people riding bikes this summer, and thus, more opportunities for the negative encounters we’re all aware of. Throw in the usual alcohol consumption when the temperatures rise, and the roads are ripe for conflict.
But why does it seem that that conflict is so often directed at cyclists? There’s no simple, single answer to that question; it’s a complex issue. Still, there are answers to the question. One answer is that we notice the conflict because we’re on our bikes. If we were driving, we’d probably still notice aggression against us, but it wouldn’t be anti-cyclist aggression; it would just be some jerk being aggressive. But when we’re on our bikes, the aggression directed at us becomes anti-cyclist. That’s because, according to Social Identity theory, drivers see other drivers as part of their “in-group,” and see cyclists as an “out-group,” to be discriminated against. And in order to justify that discrimination, the in-group will catalog the negative, anti-social behavior of members of the out-group as stereotypical behavior of the out-group; this “stereotypical” anti-social behavior is then identified as the reason that the out-group is discriminated against. In the case of anti-cyclist rhetoric, this means that “scofflaw cyclists” are presented as the reason underlying the discrimination against all cyclists.
Of course, most, perhaps even all, motorists are also scofflaws; no anti-cyclist motorist has ever proposed, however, that motorists be discriminated against as a class until the scofflaws amongst them are brought into line. This is classic social identity behavior; the anti-social transgressions of the out-group are viewed as “more serious” than the anti-social transgressions of the in-group, and therefore, the discrimination against the out-group is justified. Note, however, that social identity theory cuts both ways — cyclists view other cyclists as the in-group, and view the anti-social transgressions of motorists — the out-group — as more serious, and therefore, more deserving of societal attention. And, given the potential for lethal outcomes when motorists behave poorly, cyclists do have the upper hand in that argument. The end result, however, is an endless round of excuse-making and finger-pointing from both sides, rather than honest introspection and dialogue aimed at resolving tensions.
Another facet of that problem — noticing the aggression because we’re on our bikes — is that we tend to remember the negative encounters. As with virtually everything in life, our experiences in the road environment can be graphed as a bell curve, with the vast majority of road encounters falling in the middle of the curve — not overtly positive, but not overtly negative, either. At the ends of that bell curve are the relatively few positive encounters, where one traveler goes out of their way to be nice to us, and the relatively few negative encounters, in which another traveler goes out of their way to be aggressive towards us. Human psychology being what it is, we tend to remember the relatively few negative encounters more than we remember the vast majority of neutral encounters. Think about it for a moment — you’re out on a ride, most drivers are neutral to your presence on the road, one driver goes out of her way to accommodate your presence on the road, and one driver goes out of his way to be a jerk to you (yes, most aggressive drivers are male). When your ride is over, which driver[s] do you tell other people about?
But if, according to bell curve dynamics, most encounters will be neutral, why does it seem that there are so many unpleasant encounters? One reason is that as more people are crowding onto the road, both on bikes and in cars, there are more opportunities for negative encounters. However, not taking any other factors into account, the overall distribution of the curve should remain the same. It’s possible, however, that as more people are crowding onto the roadway, the collective level of stress rises, and that skews the distribution of the curve towards the negative end of the curve. It’s also possible that regional cultural differences will affect the distribution of the curve, with regions that are more culturally accepting of bicycles seeing more positive than negative encounters, and regions that are not culturally accepting of bicycles seeing more negative than positive encounters.]
Another reason that aggression is directed towards cyclists is because we’re all competing for a limited resource — space on the road. Ecologists tell us that when two species compete for the same limited resource, one species will always out-compete the other species, and exclude it from the resource. We can see something similar to this competitive exclusion principle on the roadway, with motorists and cyclists competing for the same limited (and shrinking) resource. Where motorists and cyclists must compete with each other for the same space, conflict often erupts, as the more aggressive amongst the motorists attempt to use force to exclude us from the resource. And as in nature, we also see attempts to share the resource through partitioning of the resource — motorists are allocated one part of the roadway, and cyclists are allocated another part of the roadway. But why is the competition for a limited resource one between cyclists and motorists, rather than between motorists, or one against all? As any student of road rage can tell you, it isn’t; competition for space does occur between all users of the road. But to the extent that the competition is between motorists and cyclists, the in-group/out-group nature of the competition stems from both social identity theory and something akin to the competitive exclusion principle.
But is that really all that road rage is — in-groups and out-groups behaving badly towards each other? No. According to Dr. Leon James, author of “Road Rage and Aggressive Driving,” road rage is principally about anger. What’s more, road rage is far more extensive a phenomenon than we often realize — we all recognize the July incidents as road rage incidents, but road rage isn’t limited to the type of violent encounters — what Dr. James terms “epic road rage” incidents — we read about this summer. It also includes some of the negative types of interactions many, perhaps most of us, have participated in, including interactions that we may not even recognize as road rage. One thing that’s striking about Dr. James’ research is that while he’s writing principally about motorist-on-motorist interactions, it’s obvious to anybody familiar with “bikes vs. cars” road rage incidents that his observations on the various types of road rage apply equally to cyclists as well as motorists.
What drives that anger? In his article “Bike Rage,” Charles Montgomery writes
[T]he driving experience primes car drivers for meltdowns. They are conditioned by popular culture to see cars as symbols of freedom, yet city driving is a slow-motion trap that subjects drivers to constant restrictions on their movement. Drivers are thwarted from enjoying the promise of motion by traffic lights, by congestion – and yes, by cyclists – and they suffer the natural but impossible desire to escape and move forward. All this while being strapped to their seats!
Tethered to their freedom machines, their escape being thwarted at every turn, drivers daily suffer through this grueling feeling of inescapable restriction. And who is to blame? Everybody else who is blocking their escape. Mostly, that means other drivers, but increasingly, it means cyclists. You know, the out-group. Frustratingly slow-moving, and yet paradoxically, traveling faster than any “freedom machine” trapped in urban traffic. And worst of all, piloted by cyclists: Smug. Self-righteous. Arrogant, even, as they blast through red lights while everybody else waits their turn. The only thing worse than watching one of these scofflaws flippantly ignoring the rules everybody else is bound by is being stuck behind one of them when — or rather, if — the road ever opens up. Surely, drivers complain, is it any wonder that their wrath is turned upon cyclists?
In fact, there are numerous factors influencing driver anger; Dr. James identifies fifteen sources of driver anger, including:
• Restriction: “Being prevented from moving forward when you expect to arouses frustration, and along with it anxiety and an intense desire to escape the restriction. This anxiety prompts drivers to perform risky or aggressive maneuvers to get away or get ahead.”
• Regulation: Regulation of driving “feels like an imposition and arouses a rebellious streak in many, which then prompts them to disregard whatever regulations seem wrong or inconvenient.”
• Lack of personal control: The “lack of personal control over traffic events is frustrating and often leads to venting anger on whoever is around.”
• Being put in danger: “Hair-raising close calls and hostile incidents” result in “physiological stress, along with many negative emotions — fear, resentment, rage, a sense of helplessness, and a depressed mood.”
• Venting: Vented anger “is felt as an energizing rush. This seductive feeling is short-lived, and is accompanied by a stream of anger-inspiring thoughts that impair judgment and tempt us into rash and dangerous actions.”
• Unpredictability: “Streets and highways create an environment of drama, danger, and uncertainty.”
Although Dr. James is clearly discussing driver anger, it’s obvious that these sources of anger are applicable to motorists and cyclists alike. But anger itself isn’t road rage — it’s when the anger is vented in one of several specific ways that it becomes transformed into road rage. And as we saw in July, road rage isn’t a phenomenon limited to just motorists or just cyclists — it’s a phenomenon that is often, but not always, an encounter between two road-ragers, who may be engaging in the same type of road rage with each other, or who may be engaging in completely different types of road rage with each other. Next column, we’ll explore how anger becomes manifested as road rage, and what we can do to transform the cycling environment from confrontational to cooperative.
(Research and drafting provided by Rick Bernardi, J.D.)
I’d like to thank everybody who has contacted me to request my appearance at their event. I will be speaking as extensively on “Bicycling & the Law” this year as my practice will allow, and will make plans to appear before any club, bike shop, or other engagement that is interested in hosting me. If you would like me to appear to speak at your event or shop, or to your club or group, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org (and if you would like to contact me with a question or comment not related to my speaking tour, please drop me a line at email@example.com). I’m looking forward to meeting as many of my readers as possible this year.