During a drive of about ten miles, I pass several hundred other drivers on the roads. On that drive, I’ll interact with maybe one hundred of those cars. Of those, I’ll probably have to deal with at least twenty who are distracted (usually on a cell phone, doing make-up, whatever). Also among those hundred, there will usually be three to five who do something patently idiotic. Something like cutting me off, rolling through a stop sign and barely hitting the brakes (if at all), running a red light, refusing to let a semi truck merge, things of that nature. And at the time, I think “Man, there are a lot of stupid drivers out there.”
So here’s the thing: it only took a couple of people acting like idiots to make me believe – however temporarily – that lots of people were acting like idiots. Despite interacting with all those other cars that are doing their best (okay, maybe not their best, but you get the idea) to just drive safe and get to where they’re going, my attitude towards all drivers was temporarily formed by just those stupid few. Fortunately, with so many other non-idiotic drivers out there, we can pretty quickly dismiss those bad drivers as outliers – not normal.
Now let’s look at cyclists. There aren’t many cyclists out there compared to motorists. For each cyclist on road there are several thousand cars. This means that the average motorist does not interact often with cyclists. It also means that when something bad happens – such as a cyclist acting like an idiot – it taints not just that cyclist, but the entire pool of cyclists in the eyes of the motorist. It’s the exact same effect that those few idiot drivers have on a motorist. But unlike with driving, there usually aren’t subsequent interactions with other, well-behaving cyclists to ease the mind of the motorist. If you interact with a bad cyclist while driving, that’s probably the only cyclist you’ll interact with that day (or even month). This leaves those motorists who do interact with a stupid cyclist with the impression that all cyclists act like that, because they don’t have evidence to the contrary.
And this isn’t just a case of motorists versus cyclists. Cyclists will also turn against other types of cyclists. For example, a few racers may ride too aggressively during a mass start event (which are usually filled with less experienced riders) and this can give a negative impression about racers. Or you’ll ride behind a squirrelly recumbent one day, and think that all recumbent riders have bad bike handling skills. I’ve ridden with racers who know how to ride amongst novices, and I’ve ridden next to recumbent riders who have complete control of their bikes. But without those interactions, it would be very easy to stereotype them, as it is with motorists who stereotype cyclists due to a bad experience or two (or even just word of mouth).
It works in reverse, too. Cyclists who ride on the road get passed by the same hundreds of vehicles other motorists drive with, only instead of being on the same roads for 10-15 minutes, we’re sometimes out there for several hours. For the most part? Cars do their best to use caution around us. They pass at safe distances, and they don’t try to pass us on hills or blind curves. Most don’t honk their horns, and the majority don’t raise their hand to show their IQ. But there are some who can’t help but be stupid. They have to be rude and honk their horn, flip us off, or smoke us out with their 8-gallon-per-mile behemoths. Why do they have to do this? Because they’re just that stupid.
And there’s the rub. Whether it’s in a car, on a bike, or wearing jogging shoes, an idiot will always act like an idiot. Their mode of transportation does not change their behavior. The bike doesn’t make them stupid. The car doesn’t make them stupid. Those dangerous cyclist that motorists can’t stand? Yep, that’s the same idiot in a car that just crossed three lanes of freeway to cut you off because they were texting at 80 mph and almost missed their exit. Just like they couldn’t wait for the light to turn green while on their bike, they couldn’t be bothered to drive their car another mile to the next exit and turn around.
Not sure who told me this, but it’s fitting: you can’t fix stupid. There’s nothing we can do about it other than try not to assume everyone in the other groups are total douche bags.
But there is something we can address, and that’s the level of interaction between these groups. America as a whole has been ruled by car culture for some 60+ years. Walking, running, and cycling – even mass transportation – have been marginalized. We need to create more interaction, not less. People are all too quick to say “Get off the roads!” and “Build more bike paths!” But all this does is maintain the wall of distrust between these groups.
If motorists interacted with not just one but dozens of cyclists on an ongoing basis, and the majority of those cyclists obeyed the traffic laws and rode in a safe and defensive manner (which by the way, most do), then the actions of that one rogue cyclist of the day can be dismissed more easily, just like the stupid driver who cut you off. The same goes for cyclists who are afraid of riding on the road because they think all motorists are out to create new hood ornaments. More interaction will lead to more acceptance, and less acceptance of bad behavior from the idiots on two wheels or four.
End of rant.