Driving Discord: Examining fear and loathing on our roadways

The Twin Cities area has seen a surge in self-propelled transportation. Minnesota’s Department of Transportation found that 13.4 percent of the Twin Cities population currently cycle or have cycled to work. The League of American Bicyclists reports that growth in commuting by bike in Minnesota has increased by 103% since 2000.

With more people out cycling on the same roads occupied by the state’s 4.1 million licensed drivers, the amount of run-ins between cyclists and drivers is on the rise—sometimes with fatal consequences. In 2015 alone the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Office of Traffic Safety recorded 10 bicyclist deaths across the state (twice as many as in 2014) and 552 bicyclist injuries in Hennepin County and Ramsey County combined.

What these statistics don’t capture are the “almost accidents”—those times when cyclists and drivers nearly collide or impinge on the other’s legal rights, which can incite feelings of animosity between them. More often than not, cyclists and motorists see the other party as responsible.

Ask drivers and cyclists how they feel about each other and you’ll begin to see a formidable rift. “I try my best to respect bikers when they’re on the road, but it can be difficult,” one motorist told us. “Most city bikers demand to be treated like cars when it’s convenient for them, but then blow through red lights. The hypocrisy drives me crazy. Don’t throw up your hands when I slam on my brakes because you cruised through a stop sign.”

On the other side, many cyclists feel endangered by motorists who are oblivious, impatient, aggressive, or a combination of all three. “I think my daily struggle,” one cyclist told us, “is dealing with people in a hurry who have a love affair with right ankle exercising rather than a light breeze in your hair and the thrill of imminent danger around every curve.”

“Motorists treat cyclists like dirt,” another cyclist claims. “Is getting to your destination a tiny bit faster worth killing someone?”

There are obviously strong opinions, full of emotion, on either side. But when the two groups meet on the roadways, these internal misgivings can escalate into full-blown confrontations, with exchanges of verbal abuse, middle fingers, and even physical violence.

Ward Rubrecht gears up with cameras, an air horn, and pads // Photo courtesy of Ward Rubrecht

Ward Rubrecht gears up with cameras, an air horn, and pads // Photo courtesy of Ward Rubrecht

Ward Rubrecht is the founder and moderator of “MPLS Bike Wrath,” an online community of bicyclists that focuses on sharing information about Twin Cities drivers who put area cyclists in danger. He began cycling when got his first road bike 10 years ago and has never had a driver’s license. Rubrecht, who grew up in rural Wisconsin, felt that during his first years in the Twin Cities he was a “defensive” cyclist who deferred to motorists when it came to the use of Minnesota’s roads. After suffering multiple crashes and injuries he realized there had to be a better way for him to cycle, and he decided to begin riding in a more “assertive manner” which would feature maneuvering more quickly and decisively, taking up more of the lane to cut down on cars passing illegally close, filtering at stoplights, as well as being more knowledgeable about his rights as a cyclist.

Rubrecht began to ride with front and rear cameras to document altercations with motorists along his commute through the Twin Cities and established an online group in August of 2015. He says he’s been “involved with intentional altercations” including one on University Avenue with a truck driver who verbally berated him, aggressively maneuvered into his bike space, and struck him. Rubrecht called for police involvement, but says he could not get officers to recognize that his right to the road had been violated and that he had been threatened by the motorist. Rubrecht’s activism gained regional attention after he recorded an additional exchange with none other than St. Paul’s Chief of Police Todd Axtell regarding the three feet of required clearance when a motorists passes a cyclist.

Rubrecht sees his community as a way for cyclists to share their close encounters with motorists and allow for motorists to see what it is like on the other side of such encounters. Rubrecht feels that the core issue behind the mistrust and animosity between cyclists and motorists is that motorists do not recognize their vehicles as destructive and dangerous objects. “People think of their cars as appliances rather than deadly machines,” he says, noting the size discrepancy between a 25-pound bike and a half-ton truck.

While Rubrecht’s approach to cycling can be considered extreme, what led him to this stage is understandable: Cyclists feel a real sense of danger sharing the road with cars. “The biggest issue is just lack of driver awareness,” one Minneapolis cyclist affirms, “and this is with bikers following laws, staying in their lanes, and so forth. The amount of times I’ve almost been hit is kind of a scary, and after those moments, drivers seem to just drive off and don’t even realize the mistake they’ve made or realize how seriously wrong it could have gone.”

Related Post: Rules of the Road: Understanding our shared responsibility to make biking safer in Minnesota

Psychological studies have suggested people can see their vehicles as extensions of themselves rather than actual objects and vehicles, and that can lead to aggressive behavior on the road. According to one study from Temple University “people who perceive their car as a reflection of their self-identity are more likely to behave aggressively on the road and break the law.”

There are other psychological factors that contribute to motorists acting aggressively on the road ways. In a 2013 article for The Guardian, Chris Chambers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Cardiff University, outlined several biases and errors we face when we get behind the wheel. For instance, drivers of all ages tend to drive more recklessly or aggressively when driving alone. Research has also shown that motorists more readily dehumanize others while driving when they otherwise wouldn’t in a face-to-face encounter. Furthermore, decades of research, including a study from 2000 titled “Provoked driver aggression and status: A field study,” shows drivers will act more aggressively toward others when they view themselves as the more important driver. All of these factors can lead to situations such as a motorist throwing a pumpkin at a biker, or a motorist screaming at a biker trying to scare them into crashing—both experiences one cyclist we spoke to encountered on the road.

A cyclist rides on the road alongside car traffic // Photo by Dan Murphy

A cyclist rides on the road alongside car traffic // Photo by Dan Murphy

The fact that there isn’t a comprehensive traffic enforcement plan in Minneapolis and St. Paul to ensure both motorists and cyclists are following traffic laws, says Rubrecht, adds to the aforementioned perceived dominance of motorists on the road. In his opinion, “a minimal amount of traffic safety enforcement would go a long way to help smooth relations and increase understanding between motorists and cyclists.” Adding more enforcement to hold drivers and cyclists accountable could help battle the phenomenon of deindividuation, or the loss of self-awareness in groups, which psychological studies have shown can lead drivers to feeling anonymous and more likely to become aggressive on the roads.

While voices within the cycling community are gaining followers and studies continue to highlight the factors that make motorists behave aggressively towards others, things are not going to get better on their own. It’s going to take a concerted effort from individuals, law enforcement, and from society at large to mend the divide between cyclists and motorists.

The first step is for all motorists to acknowledge that behind the wheel they are subject to psychological biases that can lead to aggressive driving behaviors. Only in facing these biases can we hope to correct them. The next step is to read and understand traffic laws, especially as they pertain to bikers, and committing ourselves to respecting the rights of fellow travelers. Lastly, before any of us hit the road, we should take a moment to reflect on the idea of empathetic commuting. Whether you’re riding on two wheels or four, remember that you are not alone and that you are operating an actual vehicle with responsibilities and consequences.