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Cyclists ‘less than fully human’ to many motorists: Pilot study

More than half of non-cyclists view cyclists as “less than fully human”. Photo: AFP/Getty
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An Australian study seeking to unravel aggressive behaviour towards cyclists on the roads has found that more than half of non-cyclists view cyclists as “less than fully human”.

Researchers at Monash University, QUT’s Centre for Accident Research & Road Safety – Queensland (CARRS-Q), and the University of Melbourne’s School of Psychological Sciences, say their work is the first study to look at the problem of “dehumanisation” of a particular road user group.

Spurred by common abuse of cyclists as “cockroaches” or “mosquitoes”, the researchers found that dehumanisation – more typically studied in relation to attitudes towards particular racial or ethnic groups – was a sizeable problem with non-cyclists.

The pilot study also “significantly correlated” dehumanisation with self-reported aggressive behaviour towards cyclists.

On the positive side, the study found that if drivers can put a human face to cyclists, this could reduce aggression.

Published in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, the research involved 442 respondents in Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

Participants were asked to identify whether they were cyclists and non-cyclists and all were given either the classic “evolution of ape to man” image, or an adapted version showing the stages of evolution from cockroach to human.

Participants were given the classic “evolution of ape to man” image, or an adapted version showing the stages of evolution from cockroach to human. Image: Monash University

Lead author Dr Alexa Delbosc, senior lecturer in the Institute of Transport Studies at Monash University, said that on both scales, 55 per cent of non-cyclists and 30 per cent of cyclists rated cyclists as not completely human.

Seventeen per cent of participants said they used their car to deliberately block a cyclist, 11 per cent had deliberately driven their car close to a cyclist and 9 per cent had used their car to cut off a cyclist.

“When you don’t think someone is ‘fully’ human, it’s easier to justify hatred or aggression towards them,” Dr Delbosc said. “This can set up an escalating cycle of resentment.

“If cyclists feel dehumanised by other road users, they may be more likely to act out against motorists, feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy that further fuels dehumanisation against them.”

The paper’s co-author, CARRS-Q centre director Narelle Haworth said the study showed that dehumanisation wasn’t just an issue of drivers versus cyclists.

“The bigger issue is that significant numbers of both groups rank cyclists as not 100 per cent human,” she said.

She suggested that talking about “people who ride bikes” rather than “cyclists” would be a first step towards getting rid of dehumanisation.

An Australian Automobile Association study released last year showed that cyclist fatalities in 2017/18 increased by 80 per cent compared with the previous 12 months.

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