In an ideal world (or, you know, the Netherlands), we would have dedicated bike paths where cyclists could ride, free from the terror of cars and trucks whizzing by – and motorists could focus on the simple task of driving their car from A to B, without having to keep a constant eye out for a lycra-clad hazard darting into their path.
The unfortunate reality in Australia though is that our roads aren’t always built with cyclists in mind, even though 13.5 per cent of Queenslanders regularly ride a bike. Sure, there are some dedicated lanes springing up, like the new green bike lanes around Woolloongabba in Brisbane’s inner south, but as a whole, cyclists are left to try to blend in with the traffic, and expected to follow the road rules.
Mention cyclists at any barbecue, and you’re almost guaranteed to hear a barrage of colourful language and a few strong opinions – but are driver-cyclist relations as bad as we think?
Let’s start with the less-than-great news that a Monash University study found that more than half of motorists think of cyclists as “less than human”. Respondents designed an insect–human scale, influenced by common slurs against cyclists including “cockroaches” and “mosquitoes”, and found that 55 per cent of respondents identified cyclists as the lifeform just to the left of human.
But although many of us think of cyclists as slightly insect-esque, most of us don’t actually want to hurt them. Approximately 10 per cent of drivers in the same study admitted to acting purposely aggressive by driving within 1.5 metres of cyclists when overtaking, despite that being against the law, and only 9 per cent said they intentionally cut off cyclists.
So that means 90-91 per cent of drivers are going about their merry way, doing their best to co-exist with cyclists on the road. That’s the vast majority of us doing the right thing.
One of the challenges of complying with the 1.5-metre rule is perception, says Professor Narelle Haworth of QUT. She wrote in the Journal of Safety Research in December 2018 that although non-compliance with the overtaking rule was “widespread”, she wants governments to create “strategies for helping drivers to judge passing distance and improve their understanding of the importance for cyclist safety of leaving an adequate distance.”
Dr Alexa Delbosc, the lead researcher on that Monash University study has a theory that the reason some of us dehumanise cyclists is because “mandatory helmet laws in Australia mean that hair and faces are more obscured; this may be contributing to dehumanising beliefs.
“Furthermore, the perception that cycling requires a 'uniform' of Lycra and fitness gear may be contributing to this feeling of cyclists as 'others'.”
She would like to see future research testing the effectiveness of promoting the idea that cyclists are diverse and similar to everyone else, or to find creative ways to show their faces, “so they are seen as persons, not darting mechanical obstacles”.
So it seems that most of us out there behind the wheel of a motor vehicle aren’t intentionally trying to hurt cyclists, and that perhaps we could all – regardless of whether we are motorists or cyclists, or both – do with a reminder that we are all people with jobs and families and personalities, just trying to get on with our days the best we can.
With our road congestion not improving any time soon, cycling is becoming a great option, and councils are making slow-but-solid progress in providing safe and accessible cycling lanes. The more motorists that cycle – even if it’s just a weekend pedal through the park with the kids – the better the understanding will be across the road, and that has to be good for everyone.
The “us v. them” thing is stale and old anyway, don’t you think? We can all do our bit by changing the dialogue when it comes to talking about cyclists at those barbecues. Next time you hear someone complaining about cyclists riding two abreast, inform them that it’s actually safer for cyclists to ride this way. When you see a cyclist copping a spray from a fellow driver, give them a smile and a wave, or slow down to check they’re all right. Let a cyclist push off at the lights and then drive steadily past them, rather than speeding by them before they get their feet into the pedals.
These measures may all seem small, but as Paul Kelly said, “From little things, big things grow”. And the fact is, until some new multi-gazillion dollar infrastructure is brought in, introducing grade separations and protected intersections, we have to learn to share the roads and play nice. As the ones in the big, protected metal boxes, we’re the ones with the power to be the change we want to see on the roads.