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September 25, 2012

Slate: Why you hate cyclists

(Continued)

PHILADELPHIA —

Don't believe me? Well, ask yourself, what causes more deaths: strokes or all accidents combined? Tornadoes or asthma? Most people say accidents and tornadoes, and most people are wrong. In "Thinking, Fast and Slow," Kahneman asks the reader these same questions before revealing, "strokes cause almost twice as many deaths as all accidents combined, but 80 percent of respondents judged accidental death to be likely. Tornadoes were seen as more frequent killers than asthma, although the latter caused 20 times more deaths." Kids careening on bikes are our urban tornadoes — somewhat rare, upsetting events that stick in our craw longer than they should, and seem like bigger problems than they really are.

Moreover, bicycling as a primary means of transportation — I'm not talking about occasional weekend riders here — is a foreign concept to many drivers, making them more sensitive to perceived differences between themselves and cyclists. People do this all the time, making false connections between distinguishing characteristics like geography, race and religion and people's qualities as human beings. Sometimes it is benign ("Mormons are really polite"), sometimes less so ("Republicans hate poor people"). But in this case, it's a one-way street: Though most Americans don't ride bikes, bikers are less likely to stereotype drivers because most of us also drive. The "otherness" of cyclists makes them stand out, and that helps drivers cement their negative conclusions. This is also why sentiments like "taxi drivers are awful" and "Jersey drivers are terrible" are common, but you don't often hear someone say "all drivers suck." People don't like lumping themselves into whatever group they are making negative conclusions about, so we subconsciously seek out a distinguishing characteristic first.

Every time another bicyclist pulls some stupid stunt, the affect heuristic kicks in to reinforce the preconceived biases. The same isn't true in reverse: The conviction that bicyclists are erratically moving hazards is not diminished by the repeated observance of safe and respectful riding. Facts and logical arguments that do not conform to the emotional conclusion are discounted or disregarded. But we're not doomed to our initial prejudices: Once a person becomes aware of her biases, she is more able to engage rational thought processes to overcome the affect heuristic and dispel her inaccurate conclusions. So, study those stats, bike haters!

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