Road Rage: Does it only happen to drivers

I read a tremendous book when on holiday last week. Traffic, Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) is a great read. It’s too involved to summarize in a blog post, or several. If you are a amateur traffic engineer or traffic engineering aficionado it’s a fascinating transition from the engineering to the psychology of driving.

There was one idea that I really couldn’t wait to share though. It’s about Road Rage. Some of these ideas I read about in the book, but some I am completely inventing. This is a blog, not a book review.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, driving turns out to be one of the most complex tasks we undertake. Humans are not good at it either, even ones who claim to be great. Driving is a task that we perform when moving at speeds for which we have no evolutionary training.

At the same time that we are preforming this complex, high speed task we have completely hamstrung our rich personal communication by isolating the ourselves from the outside world. We are reduced to a crude set of signals; left, right, stop and honk (which is completely ambiguous).

Outside the automobile, the negotiation over shared space is subtle and arguably pleasant. But isolated in a car, that all changes. If we feel wronged, but are unable to subtly communicate our frustration, it builds. Even if you are embellishing the 4 signals of the automobile with your middle finger, you never really know if the other driver feels bad for what happened, knows what you’re on about, or has even seen your salute.

I’ve never heard of sidewalk rage or bikelane rage and I speculate that’s because the signals that we use to negotiate those spaces are much more sophisticated and effective. Even if there is an ‘event’ you can always say ‘watch it’ or ‘coming through’ or the ubiquitous ‘on your left’. The message is still much more subtle than tailgating the offender and cutting him off at the next stoplight. Maybe off-highway events never escalate like that because you can deliver your message more precisely and normally tell right away if your message has been received and understood.

It’s not all sunshine and roses for us though. The author also points out that it may be to the detriment of  pedestrian and cyclists that they look so human when mixing with cars. Drivers instinctively look at faces and eyes of cyclists and pedestrians to help them understand the intentions of the non mechanical. They are looking for those same communications that help us off the road. It may take them longer and at high speed, they may be more likely to make a mistake.

Another very neat finding from this book. In one experiment, pictures of traffic scenarios were shown to people who were asked to describe the scenes. In scenarios with cyclists and cars, most people would refer to the car and driver as an object, but not usually the cyclist and bike. So a normal way to describe a scenario is ‘the cyclist  yielded to the car’ rather than ‘the bike yielded to the car’ or ‘the cyclist yielded to the driver’. This was true even when the face of the driver was prominent in the photo.

The author also found that drivers passed cyclists more closely when

  • The cyclist was wearing a helmet and safety vest
  • The cyclist was taking the lane
  • The cyclist was a man (admittedly the woman cyclist was a man in a wig, so drivers may have simply been wary of the freak show)

Ultimately there were only a few paragraphs on cycling and cyclists in the book and I just spoiled that part for you. The rest of the book focuses much more on driving and psychology with a little bit of engineering thrown in too.

11 thoughts on “Road Rage: Does it only happen to drivers

  1. You packed a lot of ideas into that article, lots to chew on:
    * No evolutionary training for driving (is cycling only safer on this point cause it’s slower?)
    * Bike Rage – I think this is common :) – How many times have you slapped a metal trunk cause it cut you too close? The frustration is similar: Can’t communicate with a person in an enclosed metal cage!
    * Liked the observation that drivers look at a cyclist’s face and since it takes longer it could jeopardize us.
    * How true is the commentary the male cyclists are in more danger as cars buddy up closer …..

    1. Cycle Rage…. I guess I’d still qualify that as road rage. I have definitely felt the desire to chase cars down, but never another cyclist.

      How true…. You’ll have to read the book. He describes how it was measured.

  2. I find it interesting that they found that drivers passed more closely when the cyclist was wearing a helmet and safety vest. It seems to me that drivers must be interpreting those visual cues as signs of competence; in some cases that may apply, but surely some people put that stuff on precisely because they are not very confident in either themselves or the overtaking cars… hmmm.

    1. Maybe if you’re wearing a vest or helmet drivers then treat the cyclist as an object not making eye contact and thus not treating the cyclist as a human but rather as a vehicle …. thoughts?

  3. I was also wondering about the safety vest thing.

    Normally, I wear a safety vest when it’s dark out and I want to be seen from far away.
    This could make drivers more comfortable with my presence on the road because they see me from far away and can monitor my progress. If they see me weaving, I bet they would pass wider than if they see me as a confident rider. Still, it’s just a hypothesis, I could be far from the truth.

  4. The book also makes the same guesses about why the drivers pass closer to helmeted cyclists.

    I’m actually more intrigued by the lane control. There must have been something strange going on with those measurements. On one hand, you can get passed very close when you ride the gutter. Coming out a bit doesn’t really help because there’s still room to sneak through within the lane.

    Then, as you ride farther into the lane, suddenly cars have to cross the lane paint, then it doesn’t really help them to be close any more. They might as well give a wide berth. At least, I’ve always found that to be true.

  5. There’s an interesting section on the wiki for high-vis clothing about its effectiveness wrt to cyclists.

    I like to think that drivers are accustomed to watching out for people in high-vis clothing, like construction workers and cops. In the winter I wore a wicked high-vis parka and seemed to get a wider berth from passing cars however I think that happens more in the winter.

    I saw some nice yellow high-vis stuff at KW surplus last week, I might grab a bright yellow shirt since it has a big retroreflective stripe across it, perfect for the evenings and any night riding… they also had a nice vest that looks like a direct copy of the one mec sells.

    “On your left” could one day incite me to cycle-rage… naw, it will… I’d much prefer a ring of the bell if one feels the need to alert me.

  6. The other thing about cycling mentioned in that excellent book is that “no bike lane is better than a narrow bike lane”. When cyclists are on the other side of a white line, motorists do not think much about them, and may pass too closely if the bike lane is too narrow. However, when there is no demarcation, motorists see the cyclist as being within their lane and are forced (either consciously or subconsciously) to decide how to interact with that cyclist.

    1. I was making that comment the other day to Graham as we rode down Waterloo’s new complete street. There are sections where the planners have not heeded that advice. I was uncomfortable in the lane because there’s not enough room and drivers feel that holding the line is enough. In fact, that’s how we’re trained to drive.

      It’s actually a blight on that otherwise great street.

  7. I’ve seen cyclists get mad and understandably so at inconsiderate drivers. However, in general, it’s easier to navigate traffic and pass on a bike. If you are in a car and if the road is packed you’re just going to stuck. That can be aggravating.

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