Sunday, 22 April 2012

Moral Panic - the Current Backlash Against Cycling

In the book Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Stanley Cohen wrote that a moral panic occurs when a "condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests". I suggest that cyclists are currently the victims of a moral panic.

Today, in the US (and even in Europe where cycling culture is more accepted), it seems to me that we have a situation in which there are two major conflicting forces that impact cycling. On the one hand, we have many people who are advocating cycling as a cure for many of society's ills, from stress, obesity and heart disease, to traffic congestion, pollution, peak oil and global climate change. On the other hand, there are those who see the bicycle as a threat to the automobile lifestyle that many of us have embraced and become very comfortable with over the last 60 years.

In a recent blog, I noticed a cycling advocate suggesting that cycling "can seem perilous, biking with kids in the city can seem downright reckless". It seems to me that this 'cycling is reckless' meme has been embraced by society at large and has even infiltrated cycling advocacy - to such an extent that it is generally accepted by many cyclists that cycling on the road is a dangerous activity.

As readers of my blog must be aware, I can't disagree more with the idea that road cycling is 'reckless'. The lifetime risk of being killed on a bike is almost half that of driving (and that statistic includes all the cyclists who take risks on the road, such as running red lights, riding against traffic etc.). While every form of transportation has a particle of risk, to even suggest that cycling is 'reckless' is itself reckless, since it creates this notion that a very safe activity is a dangerous activity: such a notion can lead people to misunderstand the risks and take greater risks out of misplaced fear of a less dangerous option. In my view, this misplaced fear is why most people who claim they would like to cycle more continue to avoid cycling in favor of commuting by car.

So if this idea that cycling is reckless has no basis in fact, where does it come from? In my view, it comes from the fact that we are in the middle of a McCarthyesque cycling scare in this country - a moral panic that demonizes the bicycle, making it out to be a veritable death machine that only an irresponsible person would use. I think this panic arises out of the fact that many motorists subconsciously fear that the bicycle represents a clear and present danger to their lifestyle: they're driving along in a line of traffic as part of the herd, then suddenly they are awakened from their 'follow the flock' stupor by the appearance of a cyclist on the road. They resent how the line of traffic slows down as cars ahead wait until it's safe to pass; they resent the fact that they have to actually pay closer attention while negotiating their way around the cyclist. They dread the possibility of more cyclists being on the road as cycling becomes more popular, further slowing them and making them pay attention. Then they see how vulnerable such road users seem in comparison to their caged and air-bagged existence, so, in the hope of urging cyclists to get off the road (because they can't physically drive cyclists off the road - at least not legally), they propagate the idea that cycling is dangerous: they claim that because fast multi-thousand-ton cars are on the road, slower and less protected cyclists shouldn't be (a claim that superficially appears reasonable, until you dig into the argument's true foundation, which is that drivers can't even trust themselves to drive safely). If, as many drivers suggest, cycling is dangerous, it follows that any cyclist who deigns to use the road is behaving recklessly and therefore immorally. This ludicrous belief has so permeated our society that most people probably believe that cycling is about as dangerous as skydiving - if not more so.

We also have evidence of the moral panic in terms of the targeting of 'scofflaw cyclists' on the roads of New York City (where drivers are at least equally responsible for lawbreaking), and the outrage over the handful of deaths that cyclists cause on the roads each year (while thousands of deadly car crashes are effectively ignored, unless they involve alcohol). As the Gothamist reports: 'Drivers Killed 21 Cyclists Last Year, But Only Two Got Arrested'. Yet almost every cyclist who kills is arrested and is usually charged.

Given the lifetime risks of cycling vs. those of driving, it seems to me that, if anything, people who drive are being more reckless than those of us who cycle. If the people who criticize cyclists for "insist[ing] on riding on the road" are really worried about road safety, perhaps they themselves should lead the way - perhaps they should refrain from using any form of personal transportation at all, and instead use their local mass transit system - the safest form of surface transportation in existence. Alternatively, they could telecommute, have their groceries delivered and have their kids home schooled - that way, they never have to go near one of those scary roads.


  1. In the USA, where I arrived from England in 1940, since the late 1930s both official policy and society's view, each mirroring the other, have treated cyclists as irresponsible and incompetent children. Such incompetent road users must be restricted to the edge of the roadway, or off it if that can be arranged. In that way, American motorists got what they wanted, a population of unlawful cyclists, most too frightened to cycle safely, fewer, with somewhat better understanding, deliberate scofflaws who do whatever suits them. (In the middle are the few lawful and competent cyclists.)
    Add to this political situation first the anti-motoring agitation by environmentalist bicycle advocates and, latest, official encouragement for this incompetent cycling style, thus producing social upheaval. The causes go back seventy years; the recent publicity simply raised the temperature to a more aggressive burning.

  2. I tend to hold the centre of the lane when strictly necessary and so I receive my fair share of honks from motorists. I have the vague perception that newer, more expensive cars are more likely to be carrying drivers who contest my right to hold the centre. I suspect the fact somebody has recently paid a large sum of money (or signed a long-term credit agreement) boosts a sense of entitlement to road space. I am rarely molested by drivers of older, smaller, or cheaper vehicles. This suggests that many drivers feel that they have paid more cash, and so deserve more rights than cyclists.

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  4. For over a year, I made notes on every single time I got honked at. Over that time, I saw no correlation with car, road, or even time of day. Most striking was the randomness. It really IS in the motorist's head. And the superstitions and prejudices and peculiar notions of each honker. I have noticed, however, that aggressive honkers tend to also be repeat offenders, which I don't expect ought to be a major surprise.

  5. The notion of "buying rights" is not restricted to the roadway but seems to be ever expanding in the U.S.

    Good essay, Ian.