A not-so-brief thought on otherness to start the week

Yesterday my wife and I were driving to meet some relatives for breakfast.

As we drove, a car pulled up at the next intersection, paused briefly, then made a right turn onto the street we were on. The car behind him followed through the light without stopping, then tried to pull around the other car while he was still finishing his turn. And both cars ended up trying to occupy the same space in the left lane at the same time.

The second car reacted by swerving onto the wrong side of the road, driving head-on towards oncoming traffic. Then he cut back to the right lane, and proceeded to weave in and out of traffic as he sped down the road.

Yet as I watched that unfold, I didn’t mutter anything about “aggressive, arrogant drivers.” And I doubt anyone else did.

Because I’m a driver myself.

I don’t drive like that, and simple observation tells me that most other drivers don’t, either. So why is it that so many drivers may see a cyclist run a red light or cut across traffic without signaling, and assume that we all ride like that — or worse?

It’s basic human nature to define people by their degree of otherness. That is, to look at other people, and notice the ways in which they are either “like me” or “not like me.”

To a driver, for instance, other drivers are “like me.” They share a number of the same characteristics, as defined by their mode of transportation, so he judges their behavior as individuals rather than as a group. If one acts like the driver at the beginning of this post, he may consider that driver a jerk, but he doesn’t assume all drivers are jerks.

But if he sees a cyclist do the same thing, his mind makes a mental calculation that the cyclist does not share those same defining characteristics, and therefore, must be part of some other group. Then in a subconscious attempt to define that group, he ascribes the actions of the individual to the larger group.

So if a cyclist runs a red light, he concludes that’s what cyclists do; every time he sees a cyclist run a red light, it reinforces that prejudice. But he may fail to note all the cyclists waiting patiently at the intersection for the light to change, because that doesn’t fit the mental image he’s already drawn.

Don’t believe me?

Ask yourself how many people you know who don’t like blacks, or whites, or Mexicans, or foreigners, or Jews, or Muslims, or Christians, or Republicans, or liberals, or gays, or straits. Or any other narrowly defined group.

Or short people, for that matter — or did you miss Randy Newman’s point?

Or cyclists.

Or drivers.

They see a few members of some group, and assume that every member of that group is like that — ignoring the countless others who aren’t. Because those don’t fit the mental image they’ve already created.

And it’s human nature to discard any data that doesn’t fit, rather than modify the hypothesis.

It took me years to shift my focus to the thousands of drivers who didn’t cut me off or pass too close when I ride, rather than the few who did. And to accept that not all drivers are jerks, no matter how some people may drive.

As J. Haygood wrote on his blog the other day:

I think we riders that try to cooperate with cars on the road need to make our numbers known, highlight our good citizenship, otherwise all people remember is that guy flying through a four-way stop filled with cars, salmoning up the wrong side of the road, and acting like the inevitable near-miss is the car driver’s fault. Smart money says those riders are probably dicks when they get behind the wheel, too.

And that, I think, is the bottom line. An LAPD officer put it best a few weeks back, when he stopped after a pedestrian tried to chase me off a Class 1 bikeway.

“Some guys,” he said, “are just jerks.”

………

A Big Bear cyclist was killed when the wind blew his hat off his head, obscuring is vision. Mikey Wally runs into RAGBRAI, which kicked off yesterday, on his ride across the country. California drivers are not allowed to pass a car on the right if it means driving in the bike lane. Seattle is being sued by a number of industrial groups and companies who fear a bike path extension may ruin their environment. S.F. commenters argue whether bike helmets are unsafe. Fix a man’s flat, and he’ll ride for a day; teach a man to fix his own flat and he’ll never bother you again. In Montana, drivers are required to stop for cyclists in a crosswalk. Two cyclists were shot as they competed in the Tour last week; one fished the bullet out himself while he rode. Finally, a triathlete was injured when a tree fell on his bike during yesterday’s race.

4 comments

  1. bikedate says:

    yeah i think the vehicle of choice is not he determining factor. as you say, “some guys are just jerks.”

    thanks for the link!

  2. Speaking of concluding that’s what cyclists do, a nice irony occurred a couple weeks ago when I was southbound on Crescent Heights approaching the four-way stop before Pico Boulevard.

    As is my custom, I came to a stop when I saw a vehicle had arrived at the cross street ahead of me. She then did something of a double take and yelled out her amazement at my law-abiding ways loud enough for me to hear: “I can’t believe that cyclist stopped!” But she wasn’t talking to herself. As she crossed the intersection she kept up the conversation — on her cell phone. Motorists, man.

  3. [...] Biking In LA Writes a Companion Piece to Yesterday's Streetsblog.net on Driver's Attitudes Towards Cyclists [...]

  4. gtinla says:

    Like Will Campbell, I had an odd encounter several weeks ago at the intersection of San Vicente and Ocean Ave. This is notoriously a bad intersection as 4 roads come together at really weird angles. All the roads are ‘STOP ALL WAYS’.
    I came to a full stop seeing that cars were approaching the intersection from other angles. The first car going through the intersection stopped in the middle of it when he reached a shouting distance to me and yelled out: “thanks, man, I don’t think I ever seen a cyclist stop here!”
    Case and point goes to the bad perception we cyclists have as a group, and I have to admit that at times I am guilty as charged. My behavior as a cyclist is in general better riding solo than with a group. For example take our morning group ride, when a peloton of 40 to 60 riders goes through a STOP sign yelling ‘CLEAR’ down the line, behaving as they were one long continuos vehicle, while cars sit and have no choice but to wait until this long vehicle clears. As a motorist and cyclist I understand both sides. The pity is, most motorist don’t ride bikes.

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