Unwritten rules of the road

The latest edition of The Psychologist has a fantastic discussion on the psychology of how drivers, cyclists and pedestrians interact.

Rather appropriately, it’s with psychologist Ian Walker, who makes lots of interesting points about how different road users are perceived and how that affects behaviour.

…the lack of understanding of the cyclist outgroup seems to produce measurable changes in other road users’ behaviour. A few years ago I did a study which showed that changing the appearance of a cyclist led to notable changes in how much space drivers left when passing the bicycle. The specific changes seen make sense given the small body of research on non-cyclists’ stereotypes of cyclists. The two extant studies – the Lynn Basford et al. one, and research by Birgitta Gatersleben and Hebba Haddad, in 2010 – both found that non-cyclists view bicycle helmets as an indicator of an experienced rider, and in my data we saw riskier behaviour from drivers when they passed a cyclist who was wearing a helmet, which fits the idea they saw the rider as more capable.

The positive lesson from this, I feel, is that drivers do adjust their behaviour to the perceived needs of the non-drivers they are interacting with. The problem is that they do not always understand how to read these other people and judge their needs.

The whole issue of The Psychologist is a special and transport psychology and all of it is open-access this month.

Link to interview with Ian Walker.
Link to September issue of The Psychologist.

Declaration of interest: I’m an unpaid associate editor and occasional columnist for The Psychologist and a low-skilled pedestrian.

3 thoughts on “Unwritten rules of the road”

  1. Any insights on how behavior of members of one group cross over when they “join” another group? It sounds like the drivers were non-cyclists, but were they also non=pedestrians?

    I’ve observed that people drive a car like they ride a bike like they fly a plane… Recklessness, impatience, planning (or lack thereof), responsibility, etc. seem to follow the individual, not the mode of transport. (A friend offers you a ride in his plane? Check out how he drives you to the airport and only *then* decide whether to fly with him!)

  2. This is a great article and long overdue. Obviously there’s much research to be done, especially since attitudes will be different based on region. Drivers in the northeast with our love for rail trails will react to cyclists very differently compared to the Agenda 21 conspiracist road-raged tea partiers.

    If we’re serious about safety however we must realize drivers have dozens more things to worry about than cyclists or pedestrians when it comes to not killing someone and distractions.

    Walker mentions parallels to environmental psychology. This is the bigger issue; if we have a future at all, that research could be the turning point.

    Interesting new challenges will crop up based on this. Like the fact that when I hand my reusable travel mug to baristas they look at it as though I just handed them a small alien. Studying what will motivate people to choose bikes over cars sounds cute but done correctly it could solve some very life-threatening planetary issues for humans right now.

    Start by reminding drivers that those annoying bicyclists means fewer traffic jams on their way to work.

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