advocating for a safe transporation network for biking and walking
Recently, I re-read Tom Vanderbilt’s excellent book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us). As you might expect, Vanderbilt writes primarily about automobile traffic, but he has some interesting (and surprising) things to say about bicycles, as well.
One of the most intriguing points the book raises has to do with the way drivers perceive cyclists, versus how they view other drivers. Citing Jack Katz, a sociologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, Vanderbilt suggests that drivers tend to “de-humanize” other drivers. That is, drivers treat other drivers not as people, but as just another car on the road. In contrast, says Ian Walker, a psychologist at the University of Bath in England, drivers almost always recognize cyclists (and pedestrians) as people. Walker conducted a study in which subjects were shown a photograph of a woman in a car and, behind her, a man on a bike. “Although the woman could be clearly seen in the car, she was never referred to as a person,” Vanderbilt writes, “while the cyclist almost always was.”
That might sound like good news for cyclists, except that we tend to see what we are looking for—and as drivers we are, by and large, looking for cars on the road, not people. Drivers literally may not see a cyclist until it’s too late (this is similarly true for motorcycles, which is why “Look Twice for Motorcycles” bumper stickers are so popular). This phenomenon is known as inattentional blindness, and it was demonstrated in a now-famous study in which researchers asked groups of subjects to watch a video recording of players in a circle passing a basketball back and forth. The subjects were asked to keep track of the number of passes. At one point, a man in a gorilla costume walks through the center of the frame. Amazingly, at least half the subjects in any given group did not see the gorilla, possibly because they were too busy counting passes, or possibly because they simply were not expecting to see a gorilla.
The good news is, the more cyclists are on the road, the more drivers are apt to be on the lookout for them. Or, as Vanderbilt puts it, “When you see more of something, you’re more likely to see that thing.”
For instance, Dutch cyclists are much less likely than American cyclists to be struck by a car. This may be the result of any number of factors, “But the most compelling argument is that Dutch cyclists are safer simply because there are more of them, and thus Dutch drivers are more used to seeing them,” Vanderbilt writes. To cite an example closer to home, you might know that Florida consistently ranks as one of the most dangerous states in the nation for cyclists (and pedestrians). But Gainesville, which has the highest rate of cycling in the state, is also the safest place in the state to be a cyclist, statistically speaking. For cyclists, there is, indeed, safety in numbers.
On several occasions while riding in Naples and elsewhere, I’ve had drivers honk at me and point to the sidewalk, as if to say, “That’s where you belong.” Not only is this untrue, but, as Vanderbilt notes, sidewalks are an especially dangerous place for a cyclist to be. “Several studies have found that cyclists are more likely to be involved in a crash when riding on the sidewalk,” he writes. “Sidewalks, though separated from the road, cross not only driveways but intersections—where most car-bicycle collisions happen. The driver, having already begun her turn, is less likely to expect—and thus to see—a bicyclist emerging from the sidewalk.”
Several of Vanderbilt’s findings seem counter-intuitive. For example, he references a study conducted by the psychologist Walker, in which proper hand signals given by cyclists actually led to more collisions. The reason seemed to be that when drivers “did not know what the cyclist was going to do, they behaved over-cautiously.” Similarly, Walker found that cars tended to give less space to cyclists who wore helmets. “Passing drivers may have read the helmet as a sign that there was less risk for the cyclist if they hit him. Or perhaps the helmet dehumanized the rider,” Vanderbilt notes, before concluding, “Or—and more likely according to Walker—drivers read the helmet as a symbol of a more capable and predictable cyclist, one less likely to veer into their path.” I wouldn’t take any this as a reason to forego proper signaling or wearing a helmet, but the conclusions do make some sense: We tend to act (and drive) more cautiously in ambiguous situations.
Traffic is a great read, even when it isn’t discussing bicycles. Vanderbilt covers everything from “road rage,” to why we treat speed limits differently than stop signs (many of us speed routinely, but would never think of running a stop sign), to why free parking and more roads might actually be a really bad idea. For sure, it will give you something to think about the next time you’re stuck at a red light. You can pick up a copy at the Collier County Library.