March 30, 2019

Study: Drivers tend to dehumanize people riding bicycles

In January, Alpharetta joined a select list of 464 places nationwide designated a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists, city officials announced.

As bike friendly as the metro area can be, there are still incidents of aggression — and worse — between drivers and bike riders. Atlanta’s most well-known incident resulted in Joseph Alan Lewis being sentenced to 15 years in prison for deliberately hitting Greg Germani, who was riding his bicycle on a residential road in Morningside in 2014.

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While most encounters between drivers and cyclists aren’t this extreme, researchers in Australia say they have found a link between attitudes toward bike riders and acts of deliberate aggression toward them on the road.

In a pilot test of the “dehumanization of cyclists,” researchers at Queensland University of Technology, Monash University and the University of Melbourne studied 442 people in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Dehumanization, the group said in the study abstract, “refers to any situation where people are seen or treated as if they are less than fully human.”

Todd Steigerwalt and his dog Pippa head down Peachtree Street during the Atlanta Streets Alive ride on Sunday, April 7, 2019. The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition activated 3.1 miles of Peachtree Street for the Sunday afternoon ride. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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The participants were first asked if they were a cyclist or noncyclist themself. 

Participants then were shown either the evolution illustration of ape to man, or an adaption of that image showing the stages of evolution from cockroach to human. The insect-human image was designed because of reported slurs against cyclists, comparing them to cockroaches or mosquitoes, according to lead author Alexa Delbosc, senior lecturer in the Institute of Transport Studies at Monash University.

On both the ape-human and insect-human scale, 55% of noncyclists and 30% of cyclists rated people who ride bicycles as not completely human.

Seventeen percent said they had used their car to deliberately block a cyclist, 11% had deliberately driven their car close to a cyclist, and 9% had used their car to cut off a cyclist. 

Alpharetta has been named a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists. AJC FILE/BRANT SANDERLIN/BSANDERLIN@AJC.COM
Photo: For the AJC

"When you don't think someone is 'fully' human,” phys.org quoted Delbosc as saying, “it's easier to justify hatred or aggression toward them. This can set up an escalating cycle of resentment.”

He added: "If cyclists feel dehumanized by other road users, they may be more likely to act out against motorists, feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy that further fuels dehumanization against them.”

The researchers say they believe their findings suggest the concept of dehumanizing bike riders deserves further exploration.

“If we can put a human face to cyclists, we may improve attitudes and reduce aggression directed at on-road cyclists,” they write in their study abstract. “This could result in a reduction in cyclist road trauma or an increase in public acceptance of cyclists as legitimate road users.”

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