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What our brains make us believe about bicyclists
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OUR CITY’S daily newspaper recently published a letter to the editor from a citizen who was troubled by encounters with cyclists riding the wrong way on Price Street. This is a common complaint and it’s one with which I sympathize.

I hate to see cyclists unnecessarily placing themselves at risk. Riding against traffic makes cyclists less visible to motorists at intersection and more vulnerable to collisions.

The letter writer also reported that when he made the wrong–way cyclists aware of their transgressions, they responded with impolite hand gestures. This squares with my experience. Unsolicited critiques of other people’s cycling or driving skills are seldom received graciously.

For instance, last month I was riding my bike on Price Street when a man in a Mercedes drove up behind me in the bike lane. He began blowing his horn and motioning for me to get out of the way.

I shouted, “You’re driving in a bike lane!” Instead of thanking me for my insight, he scowled at me. I took comfort in the fact that his passenger appeared to be completely mortified by his behavior.

But back to the letter and the point at which it takes an unfortunate turn. The driver warns that next time a wayward cyclist crosses his path, he claims, “I think I won’t stop.”

That’s right, cyclists. Even if he is able to stop in time, he might decide to run over you anyway.

Where do thoughts like this come from? And why do people feel comfortable publically expressing them?

Kevin Klinkenberg, an urban planner, had a similar question and wondered “if he’ll also do the same for drivers who violate rules?”

The answer to Klinkenberg’s question, of course, is no.

Tom Vanderbilt suggests “fundamental attribution error” distorts perceptions of cyclists. In a 2011 article in Outside called “Rage Against Your Machine,” he elaborates:

“When bicyclists violate a law, research has showed it is because, in the eyes of drivers, they are reckless anarchists; drivers meanwhile, are more likely to view the violation of a traffic law by another driver as somehow being required by the circumstances.”

There’s something else at work here and it has to do with the feeling of power and protection we enjoy behind the wheel. I’ve heard plenty of people complain about tourists driving the wrong way down one–way streets in Savannah, but I’ve never heard anyone suggest they would ram an oncoming car with theirs rather than taking evasive action. I’ve certainly never read a signed letter to the editor threatening to do so.

The reason for this is easy to understand: Purposely colliding with another car carries significant downsides. Purposely colliding with a bike, not so much.

This asymmetry of consequence emboldens those who think misbehaving cyclists (or pedestrians) ought to be taught a lesson. After all, there’s little chance of injury to the driver doing the “teaching.” No matter how badly they are disregarding the rules of the road, cyclists almost never endanger motorists.

In a much–discussed Slate article published in September, “Why You Hate Cyclists,” Jim Saksa posits that “inductive fallacy” (assigning the characteristics of a few individuals to an entire population) skews our thinking about cyclists:  “Now, you might be thinking to yourself that you’ve seen more than one or two suicidal cyclists in your day—that these roaches on two wheels are an infestation that’s practically begging to be squished underfoot...”

Inductive fallacy, Saksa suggests, combines with “the affect heuristic” (making quick decisions swayed by emotion) and is further cemented by “negativity dominance” (our proclivity to fixate on unpleasant events) to produce feelings of ill will towards cyclists that are often unfounded and frequently unreasonable.

In other words, our minds can play tricks on them and cause us to reach and hold on to irrational ideas.

Now, I realize it’s one thing to boast about the desire to show cyclists and pedestrians who’s boss and an entirely different thing to act on these impulses. Nonetheless, we must recognize that some people intentionally hurt and kill cyclists and pedestrians.

Even if most warnings of automotive aggression are hyperbolic, presumably the case with the letter that prompted this column, it’s important to learn from these examples.

We must acknowledge that such feelings may lurk in all of us and find ways to overcome them so we can all reach our destinations safely.

John Bennett is vice chairman of he Savannah Bicycle Campaign.