Why drivers and cyclists don’t get along

It is an interesting look into the nature of the strained relationship between cyclists and motorists that some of the most vehement, hate-filled arguments between the groups will take place in the comments of articles posted online on local newspapers websites.  It seems that whenever an article about a cyclist getting hit by a car and seriously injured or killed is put up, those that believe cyclists shouldn’t be on the road come out in force to voice their outrage at the situation.  In almost all cases, this ends up with statements about how the cyclist just shouldn’t have been on the road in the first place, and ties in many generalizations and stereotypes about how all cyclists are reckless and cyclists never follow the rules of the road.

So why do some motorists view cyclists in such a negative light?  Are cyclists out there, running rampant across our roads, looking for every opportunity to thumb their noses in the face of drivers and their “rules of the road?”  Well clearly  there are cyclists that do break the laws.  For many different reasons – which I will go into shortly – cyclists have been known to roll past stop signs without stopping, or creep through red lights before they turn green.  So there, I’ve admitted it right?  I’ve clearly acknowledged the motorists point of view that cyclists are a bunch of law breakers.  Not so fast…  The motorist’s argument suffers from two flawed assumptions.  First, by talking about what “cyclists” do the statement implies that all cyclists do the same things and for the same reason.  Any reasonable person would see this as a falsehood.  Secondly, the motorist making this argument states that cyclists don’t belong on the road because they are all lawbreakers.  However, this argument only works if motorists are not lawbreakers.  In fact on almost any trip down an interstate highway you will see numerous motorists breaking the speed limit.  Should we perhaps argue that the freeways should be shut down – cars banned – until motorists stop being “a bunch of lawbreakers?”  I’ve also noticed that, especially at the suburban 4-way stops that I may be likely to roll through on my bike, a fair number of motorists don’t come to complete stops either.   The term “California Stop” refers to cars – not bicycles.

Once we acknowledge that folks operating both bikes and cars can and do routinely break the law, where does that leave us?  At this point many of the anti-cyclist crowd will begin to cite unequal punishments for cyclists.  The first of these arguments is often along the lines of “cyclists don’t need a license, so there is no punishment for them.”  I bring this argument up first because it is the weakest.  In no state does the application of traffic fines or other punishments require the violator to have a license.  For example, in my home state of California I can receive the exact same fine for rolling through a stop sign on my bicycle as I can for driving through it in my car.  Furthermore, because I actually am a licensed driver, moving violations on my bicycle actually are recorded as any other traffic infraction – resulting in increased auto insurance rates and potential license suspension or revocation.

The more educated of our anti-cyclist debaters, however, will cite that police just don’t seem to stop cyclists that roll through stop signs or stop lights with the same vigilance they would with cars.  While I have no actual numbers, my own personal experience as both a cyclist and a motorist would be to agree with this statement.  Unfortunately the common human reaction is one of “if I can’t get away with it, why should anyone else.”  However, if we actually consider the job of the police officers we will see that this apparent lack of enforcement is probably not some sort of preferential treatment, but rather just common sense.

Our police officers obviously can not catch all crimes.  Instead, they have to make decisions about how best to use their time and limited resources to do the greatest good for society as a whole.  As an extreme example, if an officer sees a person jaywalking, while a fist fight has started across the street, no one would claim preferential treatment for law breaking pedestrians if the officer did not take the time to ticked the jay walker and instead dealt with the assault situation.   This is just common sense.

Even more so, it is about the actual damage potential to society.  Argue the fairness of it all you like, it is simply far less dangerous to society for a bicycle to be ridden through a stop sign without coming to a complete stop than it is for an automobile.  The potential for damage caused by a bicycle hitting something or someone is just far less.

When I think about these arguments, however, there is one fact that occurs to me that I believe might be fundamental to the differences between the sides – and hopefully key to bridging that gap.  The vast majority of cyclists on the road also drive cars.  This means that many cyclists see both sides of the issue, know what effect a cyclist can have on a driver as they share traffic lanes, and thus would hopefully have a more rounded and balanced viewpoint.  The reverse, however, can not be said.  The vast majority of motorists do not ride bicycles on the roadways.  They are not aware of some of the issues faced by cyclists trying to find safe space on the road.  Perhaps if we can increase that understanding and awareness all of those comments following the online news posts would be more about identifying dangerous intersections and pushing for improvements as opposed to the continued “cars rule, and if you bike you’re a fool” mantra.

  • After going through this exact manifesto a few times, I’ve change my mind on this topic.

    The motorists, in my opinion, are far less concerned about the stop sign running, than the whole “getting stuck behind” a cyclist, or removal of a traffic lane for cyclists. These arguments are more likely to be the actual rationale because people are fundamentally selfish. If the light is red, and a cyclist next to a car runs the stop sign, this hasn’t affected the motorist, but when the light turns green and the motorist now has to wait to pass the cyclist when safe, that HAS affected the motorist.

    While more than a few motorists complain about the inconvenience, that complaint does have an inherent selfish component to it. Complaining that cyclists run stopsigns does not – it is an effective way to demonize cyclists for a known transgression, without portraying one’s self as a selfish lout.

    Your last paragraph summarizes while I land on the side of “Critical Mass is good”. While it might inconvenience motorists, the motorists that are aggrieved by this inconvenience are already in the selfish camp, and while CM might make them even more angry, the net effect of this added anger is only hot air. However, CM does attract new people into bike riding, and whether they continue with CM or not, they have been assimilated into the world of cycling and their behavior as a motorist will change forever. This also applies to racing cyclists, another group demonized by both motorists and the “Fred Commuter” crowd. Racing cyclists behavior towards other cyclists will always be better than non-cyclists, even if they never use their bikes in a utilitarian manner. And they are far more likely to end up being bike commuters than non-cyclists – as I can personally attest.

    • Interesting comments regarding CM. I’ve actually got three different drafts of opinion pieces on CM. Problem is, all three disagree with each other on some level. In other words, I can’t actually figure out what the hell I think about CM.

      You’ve also given me more to think about regarding the stop sign debate. Thanks for the comments.

  • Tricia

    If drivers pay a tax for using a car on the road why don’t cyclists pay tax for using a cycle on the roads which would go towards funding The massive funding proposed for cycle highways

    • This is a very old – and very incorrect – argument. For a number of reasons. Your assumption that cyclists don’t own cars is inaccurate (most do) as well as your assumption about where the money for our roads actually comes from. That tax you pay at the fuel pump? That contributes only a tiny fraction of the US highway budget, and the majority of that is for large interstate maintenance and construction where cyclist aren’t allowed anyhow. You can find more information here: http://grist.org/article/2010-09-27-why-an-additional-road-tax-for-bicyclists-would-be-unfair/