What Scares Bicyclists More, Cars or Drivers’ Attitudes?

So often bicyclists shame each others’ riding behavior, not because it’s dangerous, but because it somehow presents people on bikes in a negative light. To accept this line of logic, we must assume that as riders we’re all committing a political act of obedience, asking for approval and safe passage from the dominant drivers of metal Priuses and SUVs.

I’ve always loathed this rationale, as well as the one that says cycling should be as bland and boring as possible, shunning eccentricities for fear of making our world seem inaccessible. Guys who customize hotrods for auto conventions don’t deter soccer moms from driving mini-vans. Nobody polled as to why they don’t ride cites an abundance of freaks as their reason for steering clear from the bike life.

Never more self-righteous than when policing our own.

What a vast majority do cite as their strongest fear is safety. The elusive ‘Interested but Concerned‘ crowd, which comprises a majority of nonriders, simply feel riding a bike in the street is dangerous, and not because of the bike. By and large, this is because of all the damn drivers out there.

Statistically, cycling is vastly safer than driving. Yet any article about a woman biking with her kids will induce commenters to label the mother reckless for ‘endangering’ her children. Despite this cognitive dissonance, nowhere will you find similar comments directed at parents driving their kids to and fro, despite motor vehicles being by far the highest cause of unnatural child mortality.

Since driving is such a dangerous act, and cycling is actually extremely safe, why is there such a misconception? Why are so many people afraid to ride bikes? Previously I’ve speculated that the self-imposed safety patrol culture that’s infested American cycling has stifled efforts to increase ridership. But it’s gotta’ be more than that.

What if the actual risk of being hit by cars isn’t as scary as the threatening attitudes so often displayed by motorists? How much of a risk you believe drivers to be may largely depend on how serious you take their threats and insults. Below is a small sampling via Twitter.

Are these people inherently cruel? Probably not. Most of us understand the confinement of the automobile crushes empathy while putting drivers under unique stress not experienced by passengers. Most motorists don’t get in their car with the intention of endangering others’ lives, yet every year tens of thousands of them kill and maim people anyway.

With such a lethal track record, hostile threats do nothing to make riders feel like their lives are respected in the streets. It’s no wonder that in most cities, only the ‘Fearless and Confident‘ are comfortable taking a lane and firing back when needed.

Le Tour de Fuck You.

What do you think, do cars themselves frighten you, or is the attitudes and individual behavior of drivers that stresses you while riding? Does venting in the moment or later on social media reaffirm your sense of autonomy? What’s the worst display of driver harassment of bicyclists you’ve seen, or best cyclist retort?



  1. What it seems more like to me (in a place where things are comparatively good and the drivers are vastly more polite than their reputation, so maybe I am answering a different question or should be grateful for my smaller problems) is more a matter of a lack of systemic thought put into bike infrastructure. If you drive a car, you get the MacOS experience; if you ride a bike, it’s Linux. If you drive a car, you get a relatively simple route, with just one or two segments, whereas if you want to feel comfortable on a bike it’s like a treasure hunt. (Example here: http://dr2chase.wordpress.com/2013/06/18/biking-in-cambridge-better-but-nowhere-near-good-enough/ ) Or you get the route with eleventeen stop signs: http://dr2chase.wordpress.com/2012/03/11/theres-something-about-this-bike-route-that-bugs-me/ .
    Or you get the pair of cycle tracks on opposite sides of the same street, one very very good, and the other terrible: http://dr2chase.wordpress.com/2012/01/22/two-cycle-tracks/ Or you get a bike route that shares a tunnel with two lanes of traffic, with a curve to guarantee that the cars behind cannot see you as they approach: (Google Streetview) http://goo.gl/maps/ofRdY .

  2. This is an interesting question that made me pause since I had to think about it. I am buzzed or blocked by cars every day on my commute. The real danger, and the answer, are drivers since they are supposed to be in control of the machine.

  3. Great points, re: self-shaming and collective blame,
    but it’s very hard to believe that cycling is safer than driving. The infographic you cite is just head injuries, and doesn’t appear to control for numbers of participants, etc.

    “Walking, bicycling

    Between 2000 and 2009, on average 6,067 pedestrians and bicyclists died on U.S. highways and in collisions with other modes of transport. Of these, 4,930 died when hit by cars and trucks operated by private users, 545 deaths resulted from collisions with commercial carriers, and 592 from commercial users not on highways.
    In all, fatalities of pedestrians and bicyclists make up nearly 15% of annual average highway fatalities. More than 90% of pedestrian fatalities occurred in collisions with automobiles and light trucks.
    A related study on risk factors for on-road cycling commuters indicated that prior to car-bicycle accidents, 89% of cyclists were traveled in a safe and legal manner. In addition, vehicle drivers were at fault in 87% of the events.


  4. The aggressive drivers are more frightening, fortunately they are not the majority where I live. Unfortunately, it only takes one to hurt or kill you. I find yelling at aggressive drivers to be woefully unsatisfying and engaging them usually makes them madder. One guy got out of the car and put fists in my face after I yelled at him. I usually feel better if I keep my mouth shut and offer a nonplussed stare. It’s similar to the glare I’d get from my mom when I acted up as a kid. The mom look.

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