Why do drivers endanger cyclists? Because they see them as insects

29 March 2019 - 06:00 By Desi LaPoole and Kamal Morgan
Many motorists see cyclists as insects when it comes to their right to share the road, say Australian university researchers
Many motorists see cyclists as insects when it comes to their right to share the road, say Australian university researchers
Image: 123rf/Radisa Zivkovic

Motorists who try to run cyclists off the road may be acting badly because they don’t think the riders are completely human.

In fact, some consider riders to be closer to insects than to human beings.

The theory emerges from a study of aggression among Australian drivers which found  more than half of those interviewed — 55% — rated cyclists as less than human.

The cockroach to human scale developed for the study.
The cockroach to human scale developed for the study.
Image: Monash University

The researchers asked 442 drivers to place cyclists on a scale depicting a cockroach evolving into a human being.

Some participants reported having used their cars in acts of aggression such as cutting off and intentionally driving too close to cyclists.

The researchers chose the insect-to-human scale, they said, because of the number of popular slurs against cyclists that relate to insects.

Alexa Delbosc
Alexa Delbosc
Image: Monash University

"When you don't think someone is 'fully' human it is easier to justify hatred or aggression. This can set up an escalating cycle of aggression," said lead author Alexa Delbosc.

The dehumanisation of cyclists, they suggest, is similar to the ways majority groups treat racial and ethnic minorities, and use aggression towards them.

Dave Bellairs, chairman of the Cape Town Cycle Tour Trust and board member of the Pedal Power Association, said things are a little different in South Africa thanks to safety campaigns which had increased tolerance.

"I don’t see huge amounts of road rage in South Africa," Bellairs said. "I see a number of incidents that occur, and those are largely a result of accidents."

The primary tension between motorists and cyclists comes from a lack of understanding on the part of both parties, said Bellairs.

Reducing conflict, he said, "is about ensuring that we become aware and mutually respectful of our spaces on the road".

Andrew Wheeldon, of Bicycle Cities, said the problem was partly due to road-user policies that prioritise motorists over cyclists.  

As a result, motorists tended to have a "sense of omnipotence" which reduced their sense of responsibility towards the safety of cyclists.

Wheeldon said he would like the learner’s licence test to focus more on the rights and safety of cyclists and pedestrians.

Desi LaPoole and Kamal Morgan are on an SIT Study Abroad programme with Round Earth Media


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