The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

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The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by dm9876 » Feb 14 2013 9:53pm

http://www.bbc.com/future/story/2013021 ... e-cyclists

likely similar reasons of cyclists feelings toward ebikers.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by MattyCiii » Feb 14 2013 10:03pm

Ironically it's the motorists getting the free ride. Or at least heavily subsidized. Not even counting the enormous externalities of driving, motorists pay through taxes, tolls and registration fees only 51% of the cost of road upkeep (in the USA. YMMV elsewhere). General taxes (income, sales, property) and unsustainable borrowing make up the rest.

Time to end that free ride. Give the motorists something real to be angry about.
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by Sancho's Horse » Feb 15 2013 12:32am

I think there is some good analysis here. Lots of implications for ebikers as well. What strikes me is how blunt of instruments both the free-rider phenomena and "altruistic punishment" present themselves. I think these things are well understood, and have been for a long time. Almost engrained. And...it takes so little to get people to start reacting.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by dogman dan » Feb 15 2013 7:17am

I notice a lot more of the "always late" syndrome with drivers today than was common 30 years ago. This may just be because more people live here now = more of those always late people.

Rule one for me, is be extra cautious the last 10 min before the hour. That's when they know they are already late to work, get in their way you die. Light turns red, but they keep on coming making that left turn. Same thing for 12:00 to 1:00, everybody in a rush.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by NeilP » Feb 15 2013 8:54am

Can't access that page from the UK as it is a BBC international site link.

Any one care to post the text up here for us in the UK top read it
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by wildharemtbkr » Feb 15 2013 9:23am

Here's the article
"It’s not simply because they are annoying, argues Tom Stafford, it’s because they trigger a deep-seated rage within us by breaking the moral order of the road.
Something about cyclists seems to provoke fury in other road users. If you doubt this, try a search for the word "cyclist" on Twitter. As I write this one of the latest tweets is this: "Had enough of cyclists today! Just wanna ram them with my car." This kind of sentiment would get people locked up if directed against an ethic minority or religion, but it seems to be fair game, in many people's minds, when directed against cyclists. Why all the rage?

I've got a theory, of course. It's not because cyclists are annoying. It isn't even because we have a selective memory for that one stand-out annoying cyclist over the hundreds of boring, non-annoying ones (although that probably is a factor). No, my theory is that motorists hate cyclists because they think they offend the moral order.

Driving is a very moral activity – there are rules of the road, both legal and informal, and there are good and bad drivers. The whole intricate dance of the rush-hour junction only works because people know the rules and by-and-large follow them: keeping in lane; indicating properly; first her turn, now mine, now yours. Then along come cyclists, innocently following what they see are the rules of the road, but doing things that drivers aren't allowed to: overtaking queues of cars, moving at well below the speed limit or undertaking on the inside.

You could argue that driving is like so much of social life, it’s a game of coordination where we have to rely on each other to do the right thing. And like all games, there's an incentive to cheat. If everyone else is taking their turn, you can jump the queue. If everyone else is paying their taxes you can dodge them, and you'll still get all the benefits of roads and police.

In economics and evolution this is known as the "free rider problem"; if you create a common benefit – like taxes or orderly roads – what's to stop some people reaping the benefit without paying their dues? The free rider problem creates a paradox for those who study evolution, because in a world of selfish genes it appears to make cooperation unlikely. Even if a bunch of selfish individuals (or genes) recognise the benefit of coming together to co-operate with each other, once the collective good has been created it is rational, in a sense, for everyone to start trying to freeload off the collective. This makes any cooperation prone to collapse. In small societies you can rely on cooperating with your friends, or kin, but as a society grows the problem of free-riding looms larger and larger.

Social collapse

Humans seem to have evolved one way of enforcing order onto potentially chaotic social arrangements. This is known as "altruistic punishment", a term used by Ernst Fehr and Simon Gachter in a landmark paper published in 2002. An altruistic punishment is a punishment that costs you as an individual, but doesn't bring any direct benefit. As an example, imagine I'm at a football match and I see someone climb in without buying a ticket. I could sit and enjoy the game (at no cost to myself), or I could try to find security to have the guy thrown out (at the cost of missing some of the game). That would be altruistic punishment.

Altruistic punishment, Fehr and Gachter reasoned, might just be the spark that makes groups of unrelated strangers co-operate. To test this they created a co-operation game played by constantly shifting groups of volunteers, who never meet – they played the game from a computer in a private booth. The volunteers played for real money, which they knew they would take away at the end of the experiment. On each round of the game each player received 20 credits, and could choose to contribute up to this amount to a group project. After everyone had chipped in (or not), everybody (regardless of investment) got 40% of the collective pot."
Last edited by wildharemtbkr on Feb 15 2013 12:30pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by wildharemtbkr » Feb 15 2013 9:24am

Page 2
Under the rules of the game, the best collective outcome would be if everyone put in all their credits, and then each player would get back more than they put in. But the best outcome for each individual was to free ride – to keep their original 20 credits, and also get the 40% of what everybody else put in. Of course, if everybody did this then that would be 40% of nothing.

In this scenario what happened looked like a textbook case of the kind of social collapse the free rider problem warns of. On each successive turn of the game, the average amount contributed by players went down and down. Everybody realised that they could get the benefit of the collective pot without the cost of contributing. Even those who started out contributing a large proportion of their credits soon found out that not everybody else was doing the same. And once you see this it's easy to stop chipping in yourself – nobody wants to be the sucker.

Rage against the machine

A simple addition to the rules reversed this collapse of co-operation, and that was the introduction of altruistic punishment. Fehr and Gachter allowed players to fine other players credits, at a cost to themselves. This is true altruistic punishment because the groups change after each round, and the players are anonymous. There may have been no direct benefit to fining other players, but players fined often and they fined hard – and, as you'd expect, they chose to fine other players who hadn't chipped in on that round. The effect on cooperation was electric. With altruistic punishment, the average amount each player contributed rose and rose, instead of declining. The fine system allowed cooperation between groups of strangers who wouldn't meet again, overcoming the challenge of the free rider problem.

How does this relate to why motorists hate cyclists? The key is in a detail from that classic 2002 paper. Did the players in this game sit there calmly calculating the odds, running game theory scenarios in their heads and reasoning about cost/benefit ratios? No, that wasn't the immediate reason people fined players. They dished out fines because they were mad as hell. Fehr and Gachter, like the good behavioural experimenters they are, made sure to measure exactly how mad that was, by asking players to rate their anger on a scale of one to seven in reaction to various scenarios. When players were confronted with a free-rider, almost everyone put themselves at the upper end of the anger scale. Fehr and Gachter describe these emotions as a “proximate mechanism”. This means that evolution has built into the human mind a hatred of free-riders and cheaters, which activates anger when we confront people acting like this – and it is this anger which prompts altruistic punishment. In this way, the emotion is evolution's way of getting us to overcome our short-term self-interest and encourage collective social life.

So now we can see why there is an evolutionary pressure pushing motorists towards hatred of cyclists. Deep within the human psyche, fostered there because it helps us co-ordinate with strangers and so build the global society that is a hallmark of our species, is an anger at people who break the rules, who take the benefits without contributing to the cost. And cyclists trigger this anger when they use the roads but don't follow the same rules as cars.

Now, cyclists reading this might think "but the rules aren't made for us – we're more vulnerable, discriminated against, we shouldn't have to follow the rules." Perhaps true, but irrelevant when other road-users perceive you as breaking rules they have to keep. Maybe the solution is to educate drivers that cyclists are playing an important role in a wider game of reducing traffic and pollution. Or maybe we should just all take it out on a more important class of free-riders, the tax-dodgers.

13/02 UPDATE: We've changed a sentence in the third paragraph that readers said implied all cyclists break rules. This was not the intended implication of the original line, and we thank the readers who pointed this out.

Do you agree with Tom? If you would like to comment on this article or anything else you have seen on Future, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by John in CR » Feb 15 2013 10:46am

Way over complicating the reasons. Drivers get pissed for 2 primary reasons:
1. Cyclists get in the way and slow them down sometimes. This annoys them just like anything else that slows them from being more late. To me late is late, so whether it's 5min or 6min or even 10-15min is irrelevant. They should have been in a hurry was before they left. This annoyance, which is primarily the driver's fault when mixed with #2 leads to fireworks.
2. No need to give it a different name, it really pisses people off that cyclists so commonly ignore the rules of the road without consequence, and drivers cannot. I understand why cyclists too commonly don't stop at stop signs and run red lights...sheer laziness and nothing more, but in the driver's mind it's interpreted that cyclists believe themselves to be above the law. Much of the friction between drivers and cyclists the cyclists bring on themselves, and those who don't follow the traffic laws is common enough (if not a majority) that those who do still pay part of the price.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by MattyCiii » Feb 15 2013 12:11pm

John in CR wrote:...it really pisses people off that cyclists so commonly ignore the rules of the road without consequence, and drivers cannot...
I agree largely, but I would adjust this a little bit:
...it really pisses people off that motorists perceive cyclists so commonly ignore the rules of the road without consequence, and drivers think they themselves cannot...

The differences are important.

Recently in Wellsley MA a truck driver (someone who has a special license, and whose sole purpose is to drive from place to place without killing people) ran over and killed a cyclist. The police and DA spent 3 months building a case - which I understand to be a very compelling one. But a grand jury would not indict. Oh and the trucker has a really bad driving record.

My point: Driver kills someone, suffers no consequence.

I see this same thing in the news, day after day. Earlier this week the driver of an SUV jumped a curb in Manhattan and pinned a man to a building with the truck. The police reported "no criminality suspected", while circumstances of the case clearly indicate the driver was at least speeding.
No consequence for the driver.

Many of us can fill page upon page of similar stories, either from the press or direct observation. But let's not. Let's concede that whether it be the 4 or so hit and run driver killings each day on American roads that never come to justice, NYC police apathy to not investigate why a driver could not keep his SUV on the road, or a city where police and DA do their job but the grand jury (whom I guarantee all drove to the courthouse) - drivers are not held accountable.

Here's my thoughts about why this is so:
1. The big difference in size and speed. When I'm driving and see a car run a red light, it's only ever the car in front of me. Most people don't watch - or can't see - cars too far ahead when driving in the grid. We simply can't and/or don't need to.
But sitting at a light, one or more cyclists can ride past me then either blow straight through a red, stop/look/go (which AFAIK is only legal in Ohio), or simply stop. Meaning: I can see multiple cyclists run a red, and can see same from nearly anywhere in the queue.
Note that the reverse is true: There's a "beg button" activated pedestrian crossing near my house. The road leading up to the light & crosswalk is straight and clear, and the yellow light is always 6 seconds long. Why then do 3 to 4 cars accelerate through the red every time the light triggers? (I see it twice a day, every day, at slightly varying times). If more people walked that crosswalk, or the thousands of similar crosswalks across the USA, there would be a wide perception that "drivers never stop for red lights"

2. The above difference in perception is amplified by the biggest mind trick of them all: the "fundamental attribution error". The fundamental attribution error is how we attach motives to actions in a very asymmetric way.
We explain our own actions as reasonable, but don't apply the same excuses to others:
"I ran that red light because I can't be late to pick up my daughter - and besides, I looked both ways."
And
"That jerk cyclist thinks he can just ignore traffic law!"
...same infraction, different way we process it.

I'd extrapolate that - since most people get around only by walking to their car then driving, drivers are empathetic to other drivers far more than they are to bikers. This would make them apply the fundamental attribution error in favor of vehicular crimes they see: "That motorist didn't pass the cyclist dangerously close - the biker should not have been there in the first place!"

Really? Did the driver choose to operate a car that has no brakes?
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by Sancho's Horse » Feb 15 2013 2:08pm

I think it is more than being late or slowed down. I have had people yell at me for crossing the major 5 lane business road in town at a crosswalk! The time given to cross is nowhere near the time needed, even without a stroller. However, the time needed is about 1-2 extra seconds. Not even enough to slow the cars as they accelerate from a stop at the intersection. But every once in a while some idiot will gun it like they are going to run me and my children over for walking across this verboden road on the way to the library. But even with them gunning it, I don't have to speed up to be out of the intersection before they come through. It is that fraction of a second when the light is green, and there is this person WALKING! In front of me.

I am not sure if free-rider is the right term. However, there is something irrational going on. I saw it at a Thanksgiving melee. They were out of turkeys and they were bringing out a pallet. Everyone was to wait in line, but as soon as the pallet hit the ground someone broke for it, and everyone scrambled. Soon there was a 2-1/2 to 3 year old standing near me holding a full frozen turkey as the mother went back for another. I will remember the look on that childs face. I just waited and walked up, and there were still plenty left. Pathetic.

There are lots of corporate, government, lawsuit, and other free rides going on, and I see them as breeding other bad behaviors. People will look at ebikes as free-rides. Unfortunately it is a real catch -22. We need the free ride in some ways to promote this different and in some ways better form of transportation, but it has a price.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by gestalt » Feb 15 2013 2:36pm

It all comes from the top down from our "betters". The government doesn't play by the rules, nor do the law enforcement or the 200k a year and up club. there is a whole different set of rules for each echelon all the way down and each of them looking down on the next while internally rationalizing their actions. I do it myself with pedestrians. I see them jaywalking, getting in my way while I'm trying to keep my momentum up and get pissed.

now here comes my rational, go ahead and break the rules, but know what you're doing and be aware of the situation. that goes for cars, motorcycles, bikes and pedestrians all around. just get off your damn phone and pay attention, look around you for christs' sake.
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by John in CR » Feb 15 2013 3:01pm

MattyCiii,
I agree wholeheartedly that motorists should be held accountable for their actions. My point is only about the primary cause of the rage. From some of the stories you guys tell, there seems to be a lack of knowledge about who actually does have rights to use the road, and Drivers' Ed and license exams would be a good place to start. Where the police are part of the attitude problem, then you've gotta go to the top of chain of command to get anything done, and that effort should coincide with community interest stuff through the media. Plant the idea that each cyclist means one less car on the road along with how they have just as much right to share the road as anyone else, and change has a chance. As part of if maybe get most stop signs turned into yield signs as they should be as long as everyone understands the proper meaning.


Sancho's Horse,
It sounds like traffic engineer's need to do something about that crossing, though if I'm in a crosswalk a revved engine or other intentional asinine behavior is going to have immediate consequences.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by MattyCiii » Feb 15 2013 3:28pm

John in CR wrote:... Plant the idea that each cyclist means one less car on the road ...
Agreed wholeheartedly.
Sadly, those with just a passing awareness of how road networks work might say "One less car. Who cares? I'm stuck in an hour long traffic jam with hunreds of cars". But in fact, studies have shown that for roads near their capacity limit, 5% more utilization leads to a 50% slowdown (and the reverse is true - a 5% reduction of cars on a highly congested road will improve speeds by 50%). This is hard to boil down to a sound byte of course.

So I love saying my bike means one less car. One less pothole, one more open parking spot in front of a store, less upward pressure on the price of gas, etc. But I keep that statistic at the ready in case there are follow up questions. This comes from the book Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt (which cites the original study). That's in case I'm pressed for the source of my numbers :)
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by Ykick » Feb 15 2013 3:29pm

gestalt wrote:It all comes from the top down from our "betters". The government doesn't play by the rules, nor do the law enforcement or the 200k a year and up club. there is a whole different set of rules for each echelon all the way down and each of them looking down on the next while internally rationalizing their actions. I do it myself with pedestrians. I see them jaywalking, getting in my way while I'm trying to keep my momentum up and get pissed.

now here comes my rational, go ahead and break the rules, but know what you're doing and be aware of the situation. that goes for cars, motorcycles, bikes and pedestrians all around. just get off your damn phone and pay attention, look around you for christs' sake.
This. Oscar Grope's "surprised" by small, swift, quiet, bike/rider and he doesn't understand how to manage the ensuing adrenalin rush. Often resulting in anger, jealousy and low self-esteem which may erupt in violent outbursts towards something that's actually helping them out.

Of course, the bigger the "private" vehicle the more "bully" the behavior IMO.... Pro drivers usually (not always) handle things better than Oscar in his Buick. YMMV
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by direland » Feb 15 2013 4:26pm

if true, then that explains why i'd rater ride a bike then drive... i am very anti-social :x

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by MattyCiii » Feb 15 2013 4:47pm

Ykick wrote:Of course, the bigger the "private" vehicle the more "bully" the behavior IMO....
My view is consistent.
Also-
* The more expensive the car, the more entitled the driver acts (pretty much by definition, amiright?
(entitled: Driver honks, revvs, drives like everyone will get out of his/her way)
* People who drive all day - but don't drive for a living (i.e., all-day drivers that are not UPS/FEDEX, taxi drivers, etc) drive sloppily, then when challenged get aggressive very quickly. These are local contractors - plumbers, general contractors, etc.

There really is a class system out there on the road.

One thing I'll swear to is an e-bike gets lots more respect than just plain cycling. And not due to looks (my folding bike looks much the same with power as it did pre-epowwer). It's the acceleration and top speed that gets respect.
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by John in CR » Feb 15 2013 6:36pm

MattyCiii wrote:
Ykick wrote:Of course, the bigger the "private" vehicle the more "bully" the behavior IMO....
My view is consistent.
Also-
* The more expensive the car, the more entitled the driver acts (pretty much by definition, amiright?
(entitled: Driver honks, revvs, drives like everyone will get out of his/her way)
* People who drive all day - but don't drive for a living (i.e., all-day drivers that are not UPS/FEDEX, taxi drivers, etc) drive sloppily, then when challenged get aggressive very quickly. These are local contractors - plumbers, general contractors, etc.

There really is a class system out there on the road.
Honking and revving are just sounds, much like words, so treat them so like in the kids rhyme "sticks n stones....". As far as size mattering, welcome to the real world. He who is biggest rules the road, especially in heavy traffic. Size and position are what matter, and other than guidelines to help flow somewhat most rules, signs and signals are to establish fault in the event of an accident. It's foolish to rely on them to avoid accidents. Accept the way the road really is to help avoid accidents or becoming enraged yourself. Then accept that there are many millions of idiots behind the wheels of their cages and you'll find entertainment value in foreseeing their mistakes.
MattyCiii wrote:One thing I'll swear to is an e-bike gets lots more respect than just plain cycling. And not due to looks (my folding bike looks much the same with power as it did pre-epowwer). It's the acceleration and top speed that gets respect.
Being smarter deserves more respect AFAIC. :mrgreen:

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by John in CR » Feb 15 2013 7:11pm

Don't believe that we can't make a difference out there, because we can and do leave a lasting impression. I've seen it firsthand:
-More than one driver that I've had to run down and read the riot act now drives with more care around all cyclists (just regular people who didn't realize the danger they posed to the unprotected with some of their driving habits).
-Courtesy on the road is paid forward.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by Dauntless » Feb 15 2013 7:22pm

MattyCiii wrote:
John in CR wrote:...it really pisses people off that cyclists so commonly ignore the rules of the road without consequence, and drivers cannot...
...it really pisses people off that motorists perceive cyclists so commonly ignore the rules of the road without consequence, and drivers think they themselves cannot...

Really? Did the driver choose to operate a car that has no brakes?
Irrelevant that the car had brakes, the driver WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE USING THEM. Once the cyclist was at fault, the discussion ends, there is no absolution. The single greatest irritant is the sheer number of cyclists who insist they can't be held responsible for their own actions. And it's not one in thousands around me, it's about about half.

In the last 24 hours I twice had cyclists nearly cause accidents going the wrong way on the wrong side of the street and then running a red light in front of oncoming traffic. In one case there was a cop right there that did NOTHING!. If it was a motorcycle or a car pulling such fool stunts, he'd have been on it like a glazed donut. THIS is what is important. No amount of spin doctoring can change that.
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by Joseph C. » Feb 15 2013 7:43pm



This type of behaviour is hardly conducive to having cordial relationships with motorists.
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by John in CR » Feb 15 2013 9:10pm

WOW! No wonder cars treat cyclists like insects. Is that kind of riding actually common in big cities? It's going to get everyone banned. Thankfully no one does down here. Sure some of the moto riding courier guys ride too aggressively, but they inevitably end up in the hospital for it. That kind of adrenaline rush type of riding belongs off road.

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by MattyCiii » Feb 15 2013 9:20pm

Dauntless wrote:
MattyCiii wrote:
John in CR wrote:...it really pisses people off that cyclists so commonly ignore the rules of the road without consequence, and drivers cannot...
...it really pisses people off that motorists perceive cyclists so commonly ignore the rules of the road without consequence, and drivers think they themselves cannot...

Really? Did the driver choose to operate a car that has no brakes?
Irrelevant that the car had brakes, the driver WASN'T SUPPOSED TO BE USING THEM. Once the cyclist was at fault, the discussion ends, there is no absolution. The single greatest irritant is the sheer number of cyclists who insist they can't be held responsible for their own actions. And it's not one in thousands around me, it's about about half.

In the last 24 hours I twice had cyclists nearly cause accidents going the wrong way on the wrong side of the street and then running a red light in front of oncoming traffic. In one case there was a cop right there that did NOTHING!. If it was a motorcycle or a car pulling such fool stunts, he'd have been on it like a glazed donut. THIS is what is important. No amount of spin doctoring can change that.
Forgive me for I did not articulate well. The above quote was not about a biker running a red light. It was about a motorist overtaking a cyclist. If a driver is overtaking a cyclist, brakes are not only relevant, they are the sole issue.

Call me if you disagree, we can discuss.
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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by MattyCiii » Feb 15 2013 9:35pm

Also Dauntless, please place a link to your e-bike either here or in your signature. Thanks.
1st build: Dahon Jetstream folding bike. Quick, reliable, capable of 32mph. Light enough to lift, folds for easy transport by car/bus/train.
2nd build: RC powered 2009 Norco A-Line. Top speed 39mph. Built like a tank, it's resistant to Boston potholes, can stop on a dime, easily goes up/down curbs when necessary.

Joseph C.   1 MW

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by Joseph C. » Feb 15 2013 10:12pm

John in CR wrote:WOW! No wonder cars treat cyclists like insects. Is that kind of riding actually common in big cities? It's going to get everyone banned. Thankfully no one does down here. Sure some of the moto riding courier guys ride too aggressively, but they inevitably end up in the hospital for it. That kind of adrenaline rush type of riding belongs off road.
I've never seen it but there are plenty of videos on Youtube - they seem to be mostly from New York though.

My experience is very limited but I haven't seem anything like that in Dublin, London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid, Edinburgh or Munich.
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mat h physics   100 W

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Re: The psychology of why cyclists enrage car drivers

Post by mat h physics » Feb 15 2013 10:35pm

Joseph C. wrote:

This type of behaviour is hardly conducive to having cordial relationships with motorists.
Oh HELL, challenge accepted. Will be discharging a firearm while riding :twisted:
Thank you for posting.
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