My cognitive theory of driver irritation

October 18, 2015

This is a half-baked theory based on no particular expertise of mine, but I’ve been reading and thinking about safety for a while now (perhaps decades).  I have come to think that one contributor to driver irritation with cyclists is that drivers are already driving about as fast as they can think (if not faster) and the sudden appearance of something out of the ordinary like a cyclist in traffic is the straw that breaks the cognitive camel’s back; the driver is no longer able to keep track of everything that is going on and they don’t like it.

Several things led me to this.  One was things like the awareness test video, where it is made obvious how our attention can become so focused by cognitive load that we will overlook what is right in front of us. Another is my use of daytime running lights; I started doing this years ago because when I built my own lights I left out the off switch (it’s just another point of failure).  With lights on all the time I am more visible and less likely to surprise, and it seemed that I had many fewer unpleasant interactions with drivers.  They were still often-enough clueless and no more likely to obey traffic laws, but they seemed to almost never be angry with me.

A third thing is the experience of riding the bike itself.  My bike is relatively tall (has a high bottom bracket) and I am slightly tall (6′) I am riding upright, and rarely going even 20mph.  I can see around me much better than when I am driving, and because I am almost always moving at a reasonable pace I have plenty of time to consider what I see.  And once you get used to this, the lack of it is unpleasant — when I’m driving, I notice that I’m deaf, and I don’t like it (I roll down the windows, whatever the weather — what’s more important, safety, or not getting a little rain blown in the window?), and I notice that I’m short and can’t see as much, and I don’t like it, and I notice that stuff is happening too quickly to pay proper attention to it.  I think most only-drivers are accustomed to a different baseline than I am, but when they fall off that baseline they don’t like it, same as I do, and blame the distraction for their irritation.  In my case, I blame the car that I am driving, in their case, they blame the cyclist, pedestrian, or whatever it is that happened to cause their cognitive overload.

Another application of this is in devising safety rules.  One rule that serves me well on my bike is to count the number of potentially unpredictable things (dogs, small children).  One is usually not a problem because I can swing wide of it.  Two, I should slow down some, depending on details.  But three is more than I can reliably track; I should slow down to a walk, if I cannot put a safe distance between me and the children/dogs.

Or, when approaching a crosswalk with pedestrians in it, how do they know that I intend to stop?  Sure, I could slow down, but that means that they have to track me long enough to know that I am slowing down, and what if I wait till the last minute — that all combines to add an unnecessary cognitive task for those pedestrians.  That’s rude.  So I slow early so it is easier to see that I know I should stop, and I signal so that they don’t have to track, and I aim the bike behind their path so they can see that I think they should be crossing.

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