Matters of Perception

11 Oct

You probably know someone who is really annoyed at cyclists in general.  Maybe one of them honked or yelled at you recently.  The kind of person who thinks bicycles belong only on sidewalks.

Just the other day I was sitting at a light — yes, I stopped — toward the left side of the right lane.  This helps to avoid the right-hook problem that can occur if you sit all the way to the right and want to go straight.  It also lets people who want to go right on red get past you.  I can’t imagine what my position could have implied other than that I was planning to go straight through the intersection.  A van pulled up on my right just as the light turned green and then braked suddenly as I started to pedal.  The driver yelled “Share the Road, man!” as he proceeded straight through the intersection.

Well, it’s also probably not a huge revelation to say that ideas of “bad” cyclists are a matter of perception more than fact.  Turns out that, according to a recent article on Slate, psychologists have some fairly specific ideas about why some people are convinced that all cyclists are jerks or scofflaws.  In simplistic terms, people focus — emotionally — on the negative.  All of the “good” interactions they have with cyclists make little impression, while a “bad” one that really ticked them off or scared them looms large in the imagination.

The piece also cites some studies that reveal cyclists to be pretty calm and law-abiding on the whole.  Unfortunately the prevalence of good riders does not have much effect — as we know — on the negative perception.  That negative perception also persists (and is applied more to cyclists than other drivers) because cyclists are “those people” — a minority, “not me.”

That would presumably be a positive effect of a larger mode share: the more of us there are out there, the less we’ll seem less like exotic rascals.  That doesn’t mean that biking safely doesn’t matter, just that good behavior alone won’t change most drivers’ minds.  For that reason I would have revised the title of a recent Richmond.com piece called “Ten Reasons Drivers Hate Cyclists” as “Top Ten Ways to Bike Safely.”

Skewed perceptions also affect views of safety.  A recent New York Times article discusses helmet usage, specifically in relation to bike share programs.  The problem is that if you require people to wear helmets to use these bikes (or to cycle in general), usage goes way down.  But isn’t that a fair trade-off for safety?  Well, it turns out that we judge danger and safety on a very emotional basis too.  People assume, for example, that more deaths are caused in the U.S. by tornadoes than by asthma.  The latter is much more deadly, but it’s not as dramatic.

It turns out that we do all sorts of mundane things without helmets or other protection, like crossing busy streets as pedestrians or climbing ladders, that are equally if not more dangerous than riding a bicycle in traffic.  You don’t hear anyone proposing that everyone who walks around downtown wear a helmet!

We also tend to misjudge what cycling situations are the most risky: a big truck coming up behind you is much less likely to leave you hurt than a right or left “hook” at an intersection, not to mention a fall from the bike that has nothing to do with a motor vehicle.  Getting really good at handling a bicycle and riding safely are much better insurance against injury than a helmet is because they help you avoid the crash in the first place.

That’s not to say that a helmet is a bad idea.  But it’s probably not really justified to feel righteous indignation toward someone who chooses not to wear one.  And relative to the miles traveled, driving a car puts you in just as much or more danger than riding a bicycle, even if it doesn’t make you feel as vulnerable.

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One Response to “Matters of Perception”

  1. Kirk O'Brien October 13, 2012 at 11:34 PM #

    Nice to see a bike advocate actually take a good look at cycling myths. Too many– notably several of the VBF folks– can be counted on the argue from both recieved wisdom and from the point of view of a motorist. This leads to some weird contortions on their part. Good, level, post.

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