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I'm only human


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.


repaste 8 years, 5 months ago

Interesting. The stop light converse is a good one, bikes are more personable, social. On a bike you will stop and visit with a friend, the car you wave and continue. Maybe a helmet that looks like a wig. I have read advice that says wiggle around a little when car is approaching - makes the drivers uncertain!

Leslie Swearingen 8 years, 5 months ago

I think of cars as aliens from another ;planet. You never know when they are hungry and will use some kind of mysterious ray to lure you close enough for them to get you. (Pedestrians, I mean.) I wave and smile and yell hello at those who ride bicycles. (When I am walking.)

Andrew Hartsock 8 years, 5 months ago

Curse you, walkdog. I had just about excised that particular head splinter.

equalaccessprivacy 8 years, 5 months ago

I love your biking blogs,Andrew, and the rich details of this one reveal so much about human nature and thought processes and our capacity to be self-righteously mistaken.

Kirk Larson 8 years, 5 months ago

I have often thought that many drivers subconsciously don't believe there are people in the other cars. That's why many don't use turn signals. Otherwise they would try to communicate with them. In car or on bike, I usually watch the car and not the driver. When I watch the driver, it seems like the car can go anywhere no matter where the driver is looking.

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