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Scofflaw cyclists: All in the mind?

COMMENT & ANALYSIS: We all know laws such as Murphy’s: “Anything that can go wrong, will”. Less well known is Muphry’s law: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written”. Then we have Godwin’s law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Hitler approaches 1” – in other words, the longer the discussion, the stronger the possibility that a Hitler comparison will be made.

There’s a similar law for discussions related to cycling, though I’m not sure if it’s been officially named yet. If not, can we name it after me? Nadia’s law states: “In any online discussion of driver infractions that negatively affect cyclists, sooner or later someone will state that cyclists sometimes break laws as (a) equal in seriousness to driver infractions and/or (b) as a trump card that cancels all cyclists’ rights to complain about anything drivers do”.

The myth of the scoff-law cyclist is just that: a myth. Several academic studies have found that cyclists either abide by the law at the same rate as drivers and pedestrians, or in one case that they are more law-abiding. Why, then, is this myth so tenacious?

There are several possible explanations, some of which I’m exploring in my research. One, though, stands out: the illusory correlation effect. This is a term from social psychology, and means that things you observe less frequently stand out in your memory precisely because they don’t occur very often. We therefore tend to think things we observe rarely are more frequent than things we observe regularly.

If you consider the low modal share for cycling in Ireland – 1.7% of all trips or 3% of commuter trips nationally – you can see how this weird effect may play a significant role in the myth that cyclists are reckless law-breakers. Though that figure can be debated as a way to judge how many people cycle, and how many miles, even in a best case scenario we see cars as a rule, and cyclists as an exception on Irish roads.

Therefore when people observe a cyclist do something wrong, it is an unusual observance, simply because there are so many fewer cyclists on the road than drivers. It stands out in their minds, while people simply don’t register the ton of infractions they observe from drivers as it is so common. What is routine is eventually no longer noticed, while what is rare stands out.

When next you post on social media about a frustrating driver infraction, therefore, when Nadia’s law kicks in, just think of me wagging a finger and mumbling about salience and frequency. Take a deep breath and remember: bless, they can’t help it. It’s headology, don’t you know.

Nadia Williams is a postgraduate researcher investigating the role of social dynamics in cycling uptake and safety. She lives car-free with her family in Dundalk.

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