Close passes – the need to legitimise cycling

By Will Cubbin, Safer Essex Roads Partnership Manager

Will Cubbin cycling

“If you weren’t in the middle of the road, he wouldn’t have gone so close!”

The above words are the ones that inspired my PhD research project, with my first paper published in Transportation Research Part F in December.

I had been cycling home from work, positioned around 0.5m from the edge of the road, as per the level 3 Bikeability training, delivered by my colleagues . The road was straight and wide, with no oncoming traffic, and being one of my regular routes, I was comfortable knowing that drivers never had any problem passing me at this location before.

A silver Mercedes passed very close to my elbow, and I reacted by flinging my hand in the air to express my disappointment in the driver’s action. The driver in a convertible Porsche following behind saw this and seemed to take the view that I had it coming, informing me that my road position was wrong.

This got me thinking whether this type of misunderstanding around cyclist positioning was a common issue in the perceived “culture war” between cyclists and drivers.

Will Cubbin in front of Buckingham Palace with his bikeMost adult cyclists also drive a car, but most drivers do not necessarily ride a bike on the road. This creates something of a one-sided level of understanding, whereby drivers interact with cyclists. The cyclist usually understands the driver’s perspective, but the driver may not always understand the cyclist’s perspective. It needs to be said that the overwhelming majority of interactions I have with motor vehicles when cycling is not problematic. When drivers need to be patient and courteous, they almost always are, but on busy urban roads I have thousands of interactions per year. So, while low in percentage terms, negative interactions with drivers do happen quite a few times each year. It is these unusual cases that I want to gain more understanding of.

Of course, cyclists don’t always get things right, they are human after all. However, collision data illustrates that across all the different types of road users, cyclists make the fewest contributions to the collisions in which they are involved. So, while a minority of cyclists sometimes put themselves at unnecessary risk, even cycling safely and legally does not protect cyclists against all the dangers posed by motorised traffic.

Existing research supports what we might expect intuitively; that being delayed from progressing at a desired speed causes driver frustration, and if the perceived cause of this delay is viewed as illegitimate, then frustration or anger can be directed towards the person or thing perceived to be at fault.

We tend to decide if someone else’s behaviour is legitimate or not based on “expected social norms”. This is essentially our model of how we think the world should work – it is the lens through which we interpret the information coming from our senses. If we do not have a good mental model for a situation, then certain cognitive biases can take over, in particular what is known as attribution bias.

This is the tendency to underestimate how much another person’s behaviour is a rational reaction to their environment, and overestimate how much is due to some perceived character flaw. A scan of comments on news items about cycling reveals many assumed personality traits such as “aggressive,” “arrogant,” “selfish,” and “reckless,” but you have to look much harder to find anything that talks about cyclists having to improvise to navigate a network that doesn’t cater for the coexistence of motor vehicles and bicycles. If a driver makes the assessment that they are being illegitimately delayed because of a cyclist’s character flaws, it increases the chances they will enter a state of anger. Angry drivers are not safe drivers, they are slower to notice new risks, make more superficial judgements, and leave smaller margins for error.

My study used footage submitted by cyclists to the SERP Extra Eyes scheme. Extra Eyes allows all road users to upload video of suspected traffic offences for Essex Police to consider as evidence for potential prosecution.  Volunteers took part in a survey where they answered questions about their opinions on eight different Extra Eyes videos submitted by cyclists, as complaints of close pass. Participants also answered questions about their road use habits, and how they deal with anger when driving. Finally, they had their knowledge tested on the correct position for a cyclist in two different scenarios, as per Bikeability level 3 training.

The analysis controlled for the group’s own participation in cycling, to allow for in-group bias (that cyclists would naturally show more sympathy towards other cyclists). The results showed two main findings of interest:

1) That people who have a greater tendency to express anger through how they control their vehicles, gave lower risk ratings for the close pass clips than other drivers.

2) That people with better scores on the rider positioning questions also gave lower scores on measures for how liable the cyclists were in the close pass clips.

This provided two useful pieces of insight. Firstly, that there is a volatile combination among some drivers, in that not only are they more likely to deliberately drive too close to a cyclist to express anger, but their perception of risk is diminished, and this may reduce their inhibitions in performing a close pass.

Secondly, independently of whether somebody is a cyclist themselves, better knowledge of positioning seems to underpin an interpretation of close pass, where the cyclist is not at fault. This is in line with what we might expect from theories around expected social norms and attribution bias. Knowledge of what cyclists are supposed to do (according to the Bikeability Trust), helps people interpret the rider’s manoeuvres as being a legitimate way of navigating the road, and not the result of a character flaw in the cyclist. My hope is that by educating more drivers about cycling practice, they can avoid misinterpreting cyclist behaviour in a negative way. A more positive view of cyclists may not remove the frustration at having to share the road, but it seems to be a promising way of preventing that frustration becoming anger that is directed at the cyclist and potentially demotivate risky manoeuvres.

Ultimately, the roads are a public place, there is a need to share this public space with all members of the public.

For decades, the roads have been built around the needs of motor vehicles, leaving cyclists having to improvise in many situations to balance of risk and amenity. There is a clear need to help some drivers understand that cyclists are in the road legitimately and have the same right to road space as all other traffic. Sharing the road is going to be frustrating at times, but it is not the fault of the cyclist that there isn’t enough space for everyone.

In fact, when more people cycle instead of drive, road capacity increases. It is necessary to drive more slowly when there are cyclists, but journey time is a function of average speed, not maximum speed. When traffic slows, junction capacity increases, and throughput on junctions has a huge impact on average speeds and journey times.

So, as a final thought – just imagine the cyclist you thought was delaying you, that you witnessed slipping through a junction in a gap no car could fit into, could change their journey up, and be in a car tomorrow, and your queue at the junction will be one vehicle longer……

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