‘Multimodal Road Rage’ and Its Verbal Manifestations on the ChainLink Forum

Background Reading


One thing is for certain, it will take some manifestation of feminine wisdom to correct what is “wrong” with the ChainLink Forum. Bike Portland is covering some research being done on the subject that comes up more often than not on a forum like ChainLink:

Could road rage tell us something about the gender gap in bicycling? (Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Could road rage tell us something
about the gender gap in bicycling?
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Tara Goddard, a PhD candidate in Urban Studies at Portland State University (PSU), is devoting her thesis to a subject that gets a lot of traction in the media but so far has received scant attention in academia: road rage between people who drive and people who bike.

According to Goddard, her research will focus on the “interactions between drivers and bicyclists,” an aspect of “transportation psychology” research that is largely untapped (most major studies have focused on driver-to-driver rage). Goddard plans to delve into the mechanisms and predictors of driver-rider road rage. “For example, as drivers, we experience (and sometimes perpetrate) law-bending/breaking all the time,” she shared via email. “It is socially acceptable, in many ways. But any scofflaw behavior on the part of a bicyclist suddenly condemns the entire bicycling world.

Ms. Goddard goes on to explain why she thinks this happens:

Why does that happen? Goddard has a few hunches:

One likely reason is the view of a bicyclist as a very visible “other,” which stereotype theory tells us makes us want to justify our “in-group” (in this case, cars and drivers,) and vilify the “out-group” (like bicyclists). Another explanation is social dominance theory – a bicyclist represents not just a person in that instance, but a threat to the norm of driving (or driving as a “right,”), and thus the desire to vilify it. The whole “bicyclists don’t pay taxes” argument helps bolster the social dominance idea.

One thing I would like to challenge here is the notion that scofflaw behavior on the part of cyclists is a myth. As a both a motorist and a cyclist I see evidence of the behaviors of scofflaw motorists and cyclists, just about every day. What distinguishes the two classes is the way in which they break the laws.

  • Motorists tend to speed. This is most clearly the case when you drive the highway arteries that lead into the major cities. For instance a 55 MPH speed limit is generally honored by folks who travel in the far right lane by doing something close to 60 MPH. The rest of the lanes are doing anywhere from 65 MPH and up depending on the road conditions and the day of the week. Weekends are probably worse when traffic volume is lighter. Then the speeding becomes greater.
  • Cyclists tend to ignore traffic controls. Since cyclists are a good deal slower than motorists in just about any situation they are seldom the speeders. What they do however is routinely ignore traffic controls. In an urban environment where automobile traffic is moving at a bumper-to-bumper pace during rush hour, cyclist law-breaking is “front and center“.

Cyclists of all stripes get condemned because they “allow” it. The scofflaw behavior has become so ingrained  in cyclist culture that we have embraced the musings of Randy Cohen wholeheartedly. He teaches that “you can be both ethical and a scofflaw simultaneously“. This is great news to a class of road users who were routinely ignoring traffic controls to begin with. When I ride in urban areas it is usually the case that the riders who surprise me most are the ones actually waiting for the light to turn green before proceeding into the intersection or stopping at a stop sign and proceeding only after looking both ways. They are so rare as to be noticeable.

But even more of a problem for drivers is the fact that Urban Cyclists especially have no history of using hand signals. My guess is that with the waning of interest in Vehicular Cycling as taught in courses using John Forester‘s book Effective Cycling and entire generation of riders have grown up ignorant of the “basics” in dealing with traffic. They are no longer predictable (except for the fact that they ignore traffic controls) and as such provide a driver will very little understanding of what they intend with regards to turns, stops and lane changes.

One of the real tragedies of protected bike lanes is that seasoned riders find them “too slow” to use correctly (since they often require ‘bike boxes‘ to make turns) and so do exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to do which is encourage riders to behave in a predictable fashion. Seasoned riders do not wish to wait for a two stage turn using a ‘bike box‘.

Goddard continues with additional observations:

Another phenomenon Goddard plans to analyze is the psychological concept of “deindividuation” — the loss of feeling like an individual when in a group (Tom Vanderbilt, an author and major inspiration for Goddard’s research, wrote about this concept in his groundbreaking book, Traffic (2008)). Deindividuation, says Goddard, results in a lack of inhibition. “At the extreme, think mob mentality. The relative anonymity and perceived protection (social, not physical) of our cars can can lead to behaviors we would never think acceptable in almost any other situation.

The same could be said of cyclists as well. Cyclists have a much stronger sense of group identity than do motorists (in my experience). Motorists are far less likely to take umbrage with the person of a cyclist than the other way around. Cyclist actually use “safety slaps” to express their disapproval of motorist behavior and supposedly to alert the driver to the danger the cyclist faces.

As for mob mentality I can think of no better evidence of it in cyclists than Critical Mass Rides. The problem here is that both groups have a very high disregard for the behavior of the other. Both groups have plenty of lawbreakers in their midsts. But as I said before the motorist is more likely to speed than to ever venture out into a busy intersection on a red light and attempt to cross while traffic coming at right angles is moving. And certainly motorists do not attempt this sort of thing on as regular a basis as do cyclists.

Can you imagine tail-gating someone at the grocery store with your cart? Or yelling at someone that vegetarians should stick to the produce aisle? I believe this deindividuation also plays into the reporting of crashes — the whole “a van hit a pedestrian” problem,” says Goddard.

“Before we can fairly tell people to “share the road,” we need to understand why it is that we currently don’t.”
— Tara Goddard

Adding another interesting layer to Goddard’s research will be taking what’s known about why road rage happens and applying it across different types of bike riders. “In the eyes of drivers, not all bicyclists are the same,” says Goddard, “and this leads to different, potentially dangerous behaviors like reduced passing distance (Goddard will look to build on research by Ian Walker). Going further, Goddard will even consider how the appearance, gender and race of a person riding a bike plays into how people behave behind the wheel.

Why does this type of research matter? Goddard sees road rage — whether just the fear of being a victim, or actually experiencing it — as a deterrent to bicycling. “We experience many micro-aggressions from other drivers when in our cars, but we keep on driving. But one or two bad experiences as a bicyclist or pedestrian, when the mass/speed/power differential is so big, and we may not walk or bicycle again, if we can avoid it.” She feels some of the gender gap in bicycling is a direct result of women being more likely to be “conflict-averse and more cognizant of being endangered.Goddard says women aren’t necessarily afraid of riding in traffic in general, but that it’s the aggression from people inside the cars that scares them.

While tail-gaiting is a problem among motorists the same could be said of cyclists. They not only tailgate cars (or pass them on the right) but they ignore common courtesies to one another by passing without warning. And of course the use of the “safety slap” is a practice that enrages drivers. Imagine what a cyclist would say if a motorist drove alongside them and slapped the back of their helmet in “Jethro Gibbs-style” to express their displeasure with being passed on the right or being passed in traffic by a cyclist riding between two lanes or having a cyclist turn in front of you on a red light without signaling their intentions. Everybody has a need to develop some skills at signaling their intentions and behaving in as predictable a fashion as possible. This goes for drivers as well as cyclists. We tend as cyclists to overreact to bad behavior from motorists and are dismissive of complaints about our own faults.

I thoroughly agree that women are on balance more “conflict-averse” than their male cycling counterparts. What might go a very long way to keeping drivers aware of the differences between individual cyclists is the lack of something that cyclists say they do no want, licensing. If license plates were on each bike and displayed in a fashion similar to automobiles it would go a very long way towards keeping each individual cyclist “honest” as well as give the motorist the clear understanding that it was not simply a cyclist who ran that red light or nearly ran over that pedestrian but rather a specific cyclist who can be identified on film and whose license number can be reported. This helps keep everyone alert to the fact that it is individuals and not a class of person (be it a motorist, pedestrian or cyclist) who just broke that law.

Goddard goes on to write:

If cities and engineers understood what spurs certain people to lash out against other road users, only then, Goddard feels, can we figure out which type of interventions might mitigate those behaviors and improve road safety for everyone:

We know that interactions between drivers and bicyclists are sometimes, even frequently, negative. The anecdotal evidence is extensive. Yet we do not have a good understanding of the social and psychological processes that explain the relations between drivers and bicyclists, and what that might suggest about infrastructure or programmatic solutions to improve those relations. But before we can fairly tell people to “share the road,” we need to understand why it is that we currently don’t.

We’re looking forward to Goddard’s work because she isn’t your typical graduate student. Before moving to Portland in 2011, Goddard was the bicycle/pedestrian coordinator for the City of Davis (California) for four years. She also holds a Masters in Civil Engineering from the University of California, Davis and a Bachelors in Mechanical and Environmental Engineering from UC Santa Barbara. Goddard’s mix of real-world experience, training as an engineer, and education from PSU’s vaunted urban studies program could produce some very important work.

We will continue to have conflict between road users so long as one class is easily identified and the other not. Having a license and a license plate says I am an individual who has been qualified and tested and thus should be respected on the roadway. But even more important is the fact that I can be identified by my fellow road users and reported for lack of good behavior. Right now the field of play is woefully lopsided in favor of the cyclists. Remove the anonymity and each cyclist has to wonder if their insurance premiums will rise or the license revoked just the same as would a motorist.