A recent study commissioned by the Victorian Department of Transport has found some interesting things. Namely, tensions between drivers and cyclists are a result of a combination of factors that can be broadly summarised under the headings; impatience, fear and fright, levels of expectation, and differing levels of awareness between cyclists and drivers.
OK, cool, but what does this mean?
Let's have a look.
Pretty obvious. Drivers get impatient with cyclists and vice versa. Certain behaviours were linked to what people use to identify impatience, such as drivers speeding and weaving and cyclists cutting through and around traffic.
It was found situations that generated impatience led to more tension. As I said, pretty obvious.
Fear and fright
Fear is often brought about due to past experiences that have made people anxious. So people can become fearful of a certain type of driver/rider or a certain intersection, for example. Such fear leads to tension.
Fright is a surprise of something immediately threatening. People often deal with fright by becoming aggressive.
Level of expectation
When drivers expect to come across cyclists they are less likely to feel tension. Levels of expectation can be bettered by both an increase in the number of cyclists and an improvement of infrastructure. Infrastructure is also important in lowering tension among cyclists. For example, a number of cyclists reported feelings of tension when a bike lane suddenly ceased to exist (an all too common occurrence in Melbourne).
Level of awareness
I think this is the most interesting and least known factor. During the study, cyclists and motorists had cameras strapped to their body in a way that simulated their line of sight (I guess they were strapped to their heads). It found, obviously, that cyclists had a different, better view of the road. More specifically, cyclists are generally 0.5 to 1 metre higher than drivers and have unimpeded, 180 degree vision.
What this means is that behaviour that seems reasonable to a cyclist may seem dangerous and reckless to a driver. This leads to perceived impatience of cyclists by drivers.
Cyclists may also be more aware because they feel more vulnerable than drivers (which, of course, they are).
The study also found that there are tensions between all road users at some time and that the tension between drivers and cyclists doesn't appear to be disproportionately large. That said, there is a perception that there is greater tension between drivers and cyclists than there actually is. This may be partly a result of how the 'problem' is reported in the media and by word of mouth (e.g. "I saw this bloody cyclist run a red light today. They think they own the roads.")
Personally, I think there is a problem on the road between drivers and cyclists but it's not a terribly large one. There are always going to be idiots, both on bikes and in cars, and these idiots, no matter how small in number, will manage to tarnish the image of the entire group.
As both a driver and a cyclist, I can't help but feel that the general attitude of road users needs to change. While we are generally polite to strangers in other aspects of life, it seems that people forgot what their mothers taught them once they get behind a wheel or a handlebar.
As I've said before, I think the biggest problem we face in Melbourne (and in many other cities) is that the infrastructure does not lend itself to happily shared roads. While I am a confident rider, I know many people who don't ride simply because they are not so confident and are therefore scared. If there were safe places for people to ride this simply wouldn't be the case. There are many cities around the world that have proved this time and time again.
And do you know what happens once more people are riding? Less people are driving. And what happens then? Lots of things. There is less traffic, people are healthier, cyclists are safer, roads are happier. Unfortunately, while there are a lot more drivers than cyclists, I can't see things changing in a hurry.
It's not rocket science but unfortunately it is political.
The full report is available here.