The reasons behind driver aggression towards cyclists is unknown and cannot be accounted for with normal pyschological explanations, a prominent social psychologist has said.
Dr Walker, who has blogged for road.cc, studies the social mechanisms underpinning aggression towards cyclists, and is famous for a study in which he cycled in a helmet, and again in a blonde wig, pretending to be a woman.
He has looked at reasons why motorists might display aggression towards cyclists, including minority social status and perhaps 'infantile' cycling.
"But even adding these factors into the mix does not explain all the anger that cyclists experience," said Dr Walker.
"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."
Dr Walker explains that, as there is no one reason to cycle, thus there is no one cycling infrastructure solution.
He says: "Some of the work we’ve done at Bath lately, most notably by my PhD student Gregory Thomas, shows that some people really value fresh air and exercise such that, if they were unable to cycle, they would walk.
"Others are cycling for speed and, if for some reason had to change mode, would drive.
"Because people are doing the same behaviour with different motivations, you can’t expect them all to accept the same infrastructure provision – the person who just wants exercise might tolerate stopping at every sidestreet but the person who wants to get to work quickly will not."
Psychologically, he says, there are reasons why cyclists are often injured going straight on when a vehicle turns left.
He says: "The hypothesis is that drivers don’t expect to encounter cyclists at junctions and so their visual search patterns go to the parts of the road where cars and trucks are to be found, skipping the parts of the road where cyclists (and, to an extent, motorcyclists) are found."
And what's more, cyclists just can't get it right when it comes to what to wear.
He says: "the visibility of riders depends very heavily on the background they happen to be passing at any given moment: if you’re riding in front of a white house it’s far better to wear black than so-called ‘high-visibility’ gear.
"To a psychologist, it's pretty obvious that visual contrast between figure and ground, rather than the rider’s clothes per se, is what will matter. But this seems to be a difficult message for wider audiences to swallow – they won't let go of the idea that ‘high-visibility’ clothing is always the best thing.
"Incidentally, there are other reasonsto be suspicious of high-visibility gear, not least that it transfers responsibility from the driver of the metal box that creates the danger to the victim of that danger."
Dr Walker puts forward a suggestion too for greater care in motorist-cyclist interactions: education.
He says: "If ... cyclists’ problem is that other road-users don’t know what it is like to be a cyclist – and there are qualitative data to suggest it does – then perhaps we might solve many problems by increasing drivers’ understanding.
"Compulsory cycling as part of driver training would be an ideal solution."
To read the interview in full, click here.
After an unpromising start, having to be bribed by her parents to learn to ride without stabilisers, Sarah became rather keener on cycling in her university years, and was eventually persuaded to upgrade to proper road cycling by the prospect of a shiny red Italian bike, which she promptly destroyed by trapping a pair of knickers in the rear derailleur. Sarah writes about about cycling every weekend on road.cc.