The Freakonomics blog posts a letter from a DFW area police officer asking: “Why does driving bring out the worst in people?”
There are interesting rationales discussed in the comments section. One that I’ve heard most is that people tend to feel anonymous inside of a vehicle, causing them to dehumanize others around them. A good example of this is if you’ve ever been cut-off by someone on the highway. Initially you might let out a string of obscenities and start to lay on the horn…but if the person who cuts you off turns around, and you realize that it’s a family member, or friend, you immediately humanize the individual and quickly feel guilty for being quick to anger. Another commenter delves deeper into this and states:
“[People get angry] in traffic because they are the (self-perceived) victims of theft. Whomever has slowed them down has stolen their time. They are reacting with the same emotions you would have if someone broke into your house and stole something valuable from you. And what is more valuable than your time?”
This is interesting, and explains why I’ve experienced hostility while bicycling on the street in traffic. Though in my mind, I’m only temporarily inconveniencing a driver as they pull around me, the driver feels I am stealing his/her time, and reacts in anger by laying on the horn or yelling out the window. The majority of road rage stems from someone feeling as if they’ve been slowed or stopped from their momentum by another. This also explains the number of angry comments you see from drivers when news blogs report on area bicycling incidents.
Though we’ve often mentioned the low ridership levels of bicycling due to a lack of “perception of safety” to share the road, what we also should note is that the majority of bicyclists are also drivers and know first-hand the dehumanizing and quick-to-temper reactions they’ve felt when behind the wheel. This understanding naturally leads to a lessening of liklihood to take up bicycling to work, the store, school, et cetera. Conversely, when someone begins bicylcing more, they are then able to empathize with other cyclists they see on the road, and if driving, give more room and ease their own emotions about having to decelerate and pass. This explains the “Safety in Numbers” scenario as well, which is seen when cities adopt bicycle infrastructure that brings out greater numbers of cyclists…in other words, your tendency to either be a cyclist or have some form of relationship with a bicyclist is increased.