One thing shown into sharp relief by the news that Transport Secretary Chris Grayling ‘doored’ someone cycling back in October is that there is simply nothing you can do to make yourself blameless when you are riding a bike.
From the video it is clear that the victim wasn’t riding fast; he was wearing a hi-visibility jacket; he was wearing a helmet. And, in moving between the kerb and stationary traffic, he simply wasn’t doing anything wrong. The blame lies entirely with the person who opened the car door without checking, and with the driver of that vehicle, for failing to check it was safe for the passenger to open his door (and for failing to move to the kerb to safely allow his passenger to exit the vehicle).
Yet this incident has led to the predictable ‘whose side are you on?’, ‘whose fault is it?’ media nonsense that inevitably follows video footage of this form going viral.
Even the BBC – who really should be above this kind of behaviour – are apparently happy to wallow in the same swamp of antagonism.
This follows a similar incident that made the national press a few days ago, in which a man cycling on a marked cycleway (albeit one just painted on a footway) was taken out by a driver who simply failed to look as he turned into his own driveway. Again, this particular cyclist had a helmet on, had bright lights, but of course he slipped up by not wearing yellow clothes, leaving the door open for blame –
Tony is now warning other motorists to be vigilant when it comes to the ‘hidden’ cycle lane. He said the biker was not wearing high visibility clothing and he did not see him due to the darkness and bright lights of on coming traffic.
We have, apparently, similar blame-shifting from Grayling, who seems to have claimed that the cyclist he injured was ‘going too fast’. We only have the victim’s word on this, but it seems entirely plausible. Many years ago I was sent flying over the bonnet of a driver’s car as he pulled out of a side road onto Oxford High Street when I was only a few feet away from him. He drove away without even getting out of his car, only muttering that I was ‘going too fast’, that familiar refrain from someone who simply failed to look.
The point is that there is simply nothing you can do to avoid this blame-shifting. Your blamelessness is irrelevant. Some minor fault will be found with your behaviour, and even if it isn’t, facts don’t matter. The law will be interpreted according to the rule that the cyclist must have been something wrong, it stands to reason, doesn’t it, bloody undertakers, going up the inside, going up the outside, hogging the middle of the lane in front of me, going too fast, going too slow, suicidal maniacs, all of them.
Why do we have these curious attitudes? The most plausible answer is that ‘cyclists’ are of course an outgroup. See these comments from Dr Ian Walker, worth quoting in full –
… there’s some classic social psychology at work here – cyclists represent an outgroup such that the usual outgroup effects are seen, particularly overgeneralisation of negative behaviour and attributes – ‘They all ride through red lights all the time’. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that something of this sort is going on.
However, there has to be more to it than just this. For a long time I wondered if the outgroup status of cyclists was compounded by two other known social psychological factors: norms and majority vs. minority groups. Not only are cyclists an outgroup, they’re also a minority outgroup. Moreover, they are engaging in an activity that is deemed slightly inappropriate in a culture that views driving as normative and desirable and, arguably, views cycling as anti-conventional and possibly even infantile.
But even adding these factors into the mix does not explain all the anger that cyclists experience. It’s easy to identify other minority outgroups whose behaviour similarly challenges social norms but who do not get verbally and physically attacked like cyclists do: vegetarians, for example. So there’s clearly one or more important variables that we’ve not identified yet. Any social psychologists looking for a challenge are very welcome to wade into this.
Amazingly, we have a textbook example of this kind of outgroup thinking from Grayling himself.
Mr Grayling, a non-cyclist, said too many riders ignored red traffic lights on their journeys in the capital. “Motorists in London have got to be immensely careful of cyclists,” he said. “At the same time, cyclists in London are too often unwilling to obey the road signs. I’ve seen regular examples of people who just bolt through red lights. The growth of cycling is a good thing. But good cycling is responsible cycling.”
He is a non-cyclist; he is a motorist; he is immensely careful. They are irresponsible; they ignore red lights; they are unwilling to obey road signs.
A statement made barely a month after this immensely careful non-cyclist was entirely to blame for injuring one of those irresponsible, road sign- and light-disobeying cyclists. You might think that kind of incident would have challenged some of his background assumptions, but evidently not. Given his subsequent comments it’s entirely possible to imagine Grayling walking away from this incident with all his stereotypes reinforced.
Of course, added to background societal generalisations about ‘cyclists’ and their behaviour, we have a person – ‘the cyclist’ – engaging in an activity that very few people will actually engage in, indeed, one that very few people would regard as normal. That is to say, cycling on roads in the centre of a city. And engaging not just in a mere minority pursuit, but one that is seen as odd and unconventional.
The vast majority of the public has absolutely no experience of cycling on busy roads full of stationary or slow motor traffic. They will not identify with anyone doing this. They will not understand or empathise with the problems and dangers they are facing, even to the extent of blaming them for even having the temerity to enter such a dangerous environment in the first place. They won’t understand undertaking versus overtaking, or even the concept of filtering altogether, because it is something that they simply cannot even imagine doing themselves. It is incomprehensible altogether.
Conversely, the vast majority of the public has plenty of experience of driving, or being driven, in these kinds of situations, and of opening car doors. This means they will find it very easy to identify with the door opener, and not with the person being hit by the door. The blame-shifting reasoning is consequently easy to understand.
‘The person being hit with the door should have been more careful’. ‘They should have been expecting me to open my car door’. ‘They shouldn’t be cycling past my stationary car’. ‘They shouldn’t have been passing my car on that side’. ‘They were going too fast’. ‘They came out of nowhere’. ‘They were in the blind spot’. ‘They weren’t wearing enough hi-viz’. ‘Their hi-viz was the wrong colour’. ‘They weren’t using lights’. ‘They shouldn’t even be on these kinds of roads in the first place’. ‘They are irresponsible, full stop’.
The list of potential faults is essentially endless; all flowing from a background assumption that the victim must be in the wrong somehow, because he is not like me, he is doing something that I would never do and can’t ever imagine doing.
I suspect the only realistic way of challenging these attitudes is to create environments that allow anyone to cycle; safe, attractive and comfortable environments that remove antagonism between different modes of transport, and more pertinently will convert cycling – particularly cycling in urban environments – from an odd, minority pursuit into an ordinary activity that the vast majority of the public will engage in themselves. Or to put it another way, these attitudes will disappear only when cycling is something that we do, and not what they do.