STUDY – Drivers’ Perceptions of Cyclists

A little behind the times on this one, but I recently came across this rather interesting study from the United Kingdom which investigates drivers’ perceptions of cyclists.  The research paper is authored by Basford, Reid, Lester and Thomson and was published in 2002 by TRL Limited.

I have reproduced the executive summary below [The emphasis are mine not the authors] but those interested can download a PDF copy of the full report here. The key findings from the research are summarised thus:

  1. Cyclists belong to an “out group”;
  2. We are okay as long as we don’t inconvenience motorists in their rush to the next red light;
  3. Our apparent unpredictability and inherently or deliberately different behaviour irritates drivers when they are inconvenienced.  This is something that I feel that we as cyclists have to take fair share of the blame for.  If we want to be treated appropriately on the road then we must ride as a vehicle on the road, i.e., consistently and in accordance with the law.
  4. Drivers feel pressured by peer pressure (other drivers), e.g., maybe waiting for a safe moment to pass but if cars start to bank up behind, the fault becomes that of the cyclists and the motorist maybe inclined to engage in a dangerous passing action;
  5. Going to back to dot point 2, if motorists have to slow down or deviate because of a cyclist we are considered a problem; I wonder if motorists consider other motorists a problem as well; what about stop signs? Traffic signs?

It seems to me from this study’s findings that a lot of  driver education is needed with a strong focus on stress reduction … way to many drivers out there with issues in my view and cyclists are considered easy targets for them. Maybe counselling needs to go along with the fine and/or demerit points.


Executive Summary

Increasing the amount of cycling and improving the safety of cyclists are key aims of the Government’s transport strategy, as set out in the White Paper ‘A New Deal for Transport – Better for Everyone’ (DETR, 1998). Previous research has shown that one of the main deterrents to cycling is a fear of traffic, often attributed to the attitudes and behaviour of drivers.

This report summarises the methodology and results of a research project that investigated drivers’ perceptions of cyclists. The key aims of the research were to:

  • compare the views of the identified driver types;
  • compare the views of drivers within different geographical areas;
  • investigate driver tolerance of cyclists and behaviour towards different types of cyclists;
  • investigate driver behaviour in different driving situations;
  • explore levels of knowledge of cycling facilities; l investigate drivers’ suggestions for improving the driver/cyclist interaction; and
  • examine levels of driver and cyclist adherence to the Highway Code.

The research was phased and broadly categorised to ensure coverage of all the essential aspects of the topic and to allow for development of understandings and concepts as the project progressed. Each research phase was completed prior to commencement of the subsequent phase to allow for interim findings to guide the direction of the following work. The research methodology was as follows:

  • Qualitative Research – This phase began with a review of relevant literature and analysis of STATS 19 accident data. The findings from the initial work were then used to direct the composition and content of eight group discussions and twenty individual depth interviews that were held with a representative sample of the public.
  • Quantitative Research – With input from the ‘Qualitative Research’ phase, interview questionnaires were designed and completed with a controlled sample of 620 drivers. These interviews were held to gather more precise data on drivers’ attitudes, intentions and behaviours towards cyclists.
  • Testing of the Research – This phase allowed for clearer linking of attitudes and perceptions with actual driver behaviour through simulated trials and effectiveness of interventions to change driver responses.

At each phase of the research, findings were explored with respect to a number of psychological theories, particularly the ‘Theory of Planned Behavior’. This theory posits that human intentions are formed as a result of the interaction of three elements:

  • attitude;
  • social norm; and
  • perceived behavioural control.

The data gathered from each of the research phases are highly supportive of the conceptual framework and suggest that the ‘Theory of Planned Behavior’ could provide an appropriate structure for steering future research in this area.

Throughout the research it was observed that drivers do not have particularly strong feelings towards cyclists compared to their level of feelings towards other groups of road users. However, when prompted, it is clear that motorists hold negative views of cyclists and tend to classify them as an ‘out group’ with significantly different characteristics from most other road users.

Analysis of the research suggests that the unpredictability and the inherently or deliberately ‘different’ behaviour of cyclists are seen to be particular sources of irritation to drivers when those issues then compromise the drivers’ own convenience.

When encountering a cyclist in circumstances that require care, most drivers appear to recognise that they should give consideration to the cyclist.  However, their actual behaviour may be affected by their perception of the ‘social norm’ and the related pressure that they feel from other drivers as part of their ‘in group’.

This research has also revealed evidence that the response of drivers when encountering cyclists is influenced by the context of the encounter. The apparent lack of understanding of how to use certain types of infrastructure leads to a diversity of improvised driver responses at these locations that may be unsettling or alarming to cyclists. Where infrastructure is understood and clearly defines ownership of the road space, this appears to increase driver confidence when encountering cyclists. Where a cyclist is encountered within a context that causes a driver to slow down or deviate, drivers’ estimation of the cyclist’s discourtesy was seen to increase regardless of the cyclist’s actual behaviour.

On the basis of this research, a number of recommendations may be made relating to highway design, awareness raising, enforcement and areas for future research:

  • physical road features that force cyclists and drivers into close proximity should be avoided, or where this is unavoidable, motor vehicle speeds at such locations should be reduced;
  • highway designs that deliberately require cyclists to obstruct traffic in order to produce a traffic calming effect should be avoided as they are likely to cause particular frustration to drivers;
  • education of drivers should focus not on helping them to predict cyclist behaviour but on understanding the circumstances, including driver behaviour, that will influence cyclist behaviour;
  • training to improve awareness of required behaviours at road features and cyclist facilities may be helpful for both drivers and cyclists;
  • the current low level of enforcement of traffic law with regard to both drivers and cyclists should be increased;
  • further research should be conducted in order to establish whether the frustration experienced by drivers is translated into negative behaviour; and
  • further research into the regional variations in attitude to cyclists may be useful in identifying practices likely to promote a better relationship between cycle users and motorists.


  1. Tweets that mention STUDY – Drivers’ Perceptions of Cyclists | Aushiker: Bicycling & Hiking in Western Australia -- - 31 January 2011

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Aushiker, Barry Wieczorek. Barry Wieczorek said: STUDY – Drivers' Perceptions of Cyclists | Aushiker: Bicycling … […]

  2. ROAD SAFETY: Understanding the Relationship between Cyclists and Drivers | Aushiker: Bicycling & Hiking in Western Australia - 8 May 2011

    […]  This study adds an Australian insight into the topic and extends/compliments the work of Basford, Reid, Lester and Thomson (2002) in the United Kingdom.  The report can be download here as a PDF […]

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