Study finds that 70% of London cyclists believe drivers mean them harm. But is it mainly the fault of the road system?
Peter WalkerLast modified on Fri 11 May 2018 07.16 BST
As a cyclist in a busy urban environment, it can seem that some drivers are out to get you. And now a new study has concluded that for many bike riders, this is only too true: a sense of paranoia is a clinical reality.
The research led by Lyn Ellet, a clinical psychology academic at Royal Holloway, University of London, studied 323 cyclists in London aged between 18-66, and used a series of questions to gauge their levels of paranoia when on a bike.
Published in the journal Psychiatry Research, the study found that when measuring so-called state paranoia – how paranoid people feel in a certain situation – 70% of the London cyclists studied expressed at least one of the following feelings about drivers: that they are hostile to me; want to upset me; want to harm me; or have it in for me.
In contrast, the study discovered, when measured for trait paranoia – how paranoid people are in general – the cyclists tended to show relatively low levels, and there was no apparent link between riders’ state and trait levels of paranoia.
So, what is to blame for such strong feelings, summed up by one participant who is quoted in the study as saying: “I honestly view every driver as if he’s trying to kill me”?
It’s seemingly down to the generally feral road conditions faced by cyclists in London (and, you could add, in most other places in the UK, not to mention other countries). The study puts it thus:
The present research indicates that paranoia towards motor vehicle users may be common when cycling in London, and that far from being a pathological response, observed state paranoia is an understandable response to an urban environment containing significant and very real threat.
The present findings reinforce and add a further dimension to the pressing public health need to focus on and protect urban cyclists.
Highlighting this point, the study also looked into reported paranoia among travellers on London’s tube system, another transport method which has its negatives, though very rarely connected to a real personal threat to one’s safety.
Here, the study said, state paranoia levels were notably lower, and there was a more general correlation between how paranoid people felt on the tube and their more general levels of paranoia.
On the specific feelings expressed by cyclists, 58% felt drivers were hostile to them; 45% believed drivers wanted to upset them; 29% thought drivers wanted to harm them; and 50% said of drivers that they “have it in for me”.
I fully understand these sentiments, though I perhaps feel a bit differently. I don’t generally think drivers are deliberately out to harm, harass or upset me – with the important caveat that this does very occasionally happen.
Instead, what terrifies me is the lack of care, the casual approach to taking risks against a desperately vulnerable human on a bike by someone safely encased in a tonne of protective steel.
This casual approach to others’ peril was eloquently expressed in the early 1950s by Alan Lennox-Boyd, at the time the transport minister in Winston Churchill’s government. He said:
Accidents in the main arise from the taking of very small risks a very large number of times. A thousand-to-one chance against an accident may not be rated very high, but for every thousand people that take it there will be an accident.