Cyclists ‘not fully human’ to some drivers

Cyclist stops riding and looks behind to see a car.

Megan Whitfield

Posted May 06, 2019

Dehumanising attitudes to cyclists enable aggressive behaviour, study finds.

You’re on the road, driving to work. You look to your left and see something on two wheels. Is that antenna you see? An extra limb, or four, protruding from their lycra ensemble?

Or perhaps it’s a just a person on a bike. 

New research from Monash, QUT and Melbourne University has found that more than 50 per cent of drivers don’t view cyclists as fully human, instead labelling them as mosquitoes or cockroaches. 

Lead author and senior lecturer in the department of Transport Studies at Monash University, Dr Alexa Delbosc, says these dehumanising attitudes enable the acts of aggression commonly seen towards bike riders on our roads.

“Sometimes [people] say, ‘We’re only joking about smashing these mozzies that are in my way,’ but it condones attitudes of violence against a vulnerable group on the roads,” Alexa says. “We need people to understand that cyclists are people too.”

She organised the study to try to understand why behaviour that is considered entirely unacceptable in other aspects of daily life is viewed as acceptable when directed towards cyclists.

The researchers asked 442 cyclists and non-cyclists from across Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland to rate riders on one of two evolutionary scales – either ape to human, the standard scale used to measure dehumanisation, or cockroach to human, to reflect a common insult directed at cyclists. 

The respondents were then asked about their own behaviour toward cyclists. Alarmingly, 17 per cent admitted they had used their car to deliberately block a cyclist, and 11 per cent admitted they had deliberately driven their car close to a cyclist.

Such negative attitudes were not restricted to drivers; 30 per cent of respondents who ride bikes also rated cyclists as ‘not fully human’. “What we suspect is happening there,” says Alexa, “is that if you are a cyclist sometimes you feel very sensitive about your own behaviour, versus those ‘other cyclists’ that are doing the wrong thing. We suspect there are people saying ‘I’m a good cyclist, but some are reckless and are giving us a bad name’.

“It can set up a really vicious cycle. Motorists get frustrated and might be aggressive against cyclists. Cyclists feel like a target, and that can push them away from cycling entirely, or make them act out aggressively in what they may see as self-defence.”

RACV senior planner Stuart Outhred says the survey results are concerning. “These findings do sync up with some anecdotes we hear [at RACV] and that is very alarming,” Stuart says. “We don’t want any aggression on our roads, irrespective of what form of transport you use.”

He says further investigation into these attitudes is needed, but says that stereotypes of cyclists or motorists can be unhelpful. “Lots of motorists are also riders. When you get out of your car or step off a tram, you’re a pedestrian – we all use the roads in a multitude of ways. We need to respect each other and be safe.”

Garry Brennan, of the Bicycle Network, urges cyclists not to be put off by this study.

“It doesn’t line up with our experience [at the Bicycle Network],” he says. “On a whole, the relationship between motorists and riders is positive.” 

While he accepts some aggression does happen, he believes it is becoming less common as cycling becomes more popular. According to figures from the Bicycle Network and City of Melbourne, bicycles accounted for 16 per cent of all vehicle movements into the city between 7am and 10am in March 2017, up from 11 per cent in 2012. That percentage is expected to keep growing as bike infrastructure continues to improve. 

“The more we see bikes on our roads, the more normal cycling is in the community,” says Garry. “It leads to riders being seen as normal, accepted, human.”

“It’s a major social change and change always makes people anxious. We just have to understand that and endure this transition, because there are going to be vastly more [cyclists] on the roads in the future. And the streets will be safer and calmer because of it.”

Cyclists are human too

As a former professional cyclist, bike riding has taken Rhys Smith across the globe, racing throughout Europe before returning to Australia.

 The 37-year-old small business owner now takes a more casual approach to cycling, particularly riding around St Kilda on a sunny afternoon before returning home to his fiance and kelpie. But it’s not all riding off into the sunset. He faces aggressive behaviour from other road users on a regular basis.

“I’ve experienced basically everything. When I was 16, I had a firecracker thrown at me from outside a passenger window. At 18, I had a guy jump out of his car and punch me … for not riding in the bike lane [which was inaccessible due to parked cars],” he says. 

Cars drive too closely or cut him off at roundabouts, or “brake suddenly, and you think you’re going through the back windscreen”. Mostly, it’s verbal abuse – variations of “get off the road”, but with expletives.

Rhys readily accepts this behaviour comes from a minority of motorists and that things are getting better as cycling becomes more common. But he does want to see change.

“Of 1000 motorists, 999 are perfectly fine – but there’s always the one that does something that scares the wits out of you.”