There is ongoing pressure on the government by advocacy groups to impose stricter penalties on drivers who open their car door on a passing cyclist. But are heftier penalties the most effective way to change behaviour?
Cyclists want motorists to stop dooring them, passing too close and generally threatening their safety. Understandable, really. But more controversial is how to achieve it and everyone seems to have their own view.
People typically view laws as a means of ensuring actions and behaviours deemed by society to be a breach of others’ rights are punished and corrected – balancing the scales of justice. Most cyclists have probably been in heated confrontations with motorists at one time or another and walked away thinking “It isn’t my job to police these people, we need stricter laws and enforcement of them”.
Open a door into traffic, in front of a cyclist, and the driver or passenger should be punished. It certainly seems logical to believe that when people observe punishment being metered out to others, the penny should drop that they will avoid being punished themselves by complying with the law. But studies of compliance behaviour strongly suggest that motivations for and means of complying with or breaking laws are far more complex.
Of particular relevance is the theory of bounded rationality, which contends that limitations on available information and cognitive powers more significantly influence human decisions than purely rational factors (e.g. the size of a traffic fine). It is likely that most people who have caused or contributed to the accidental death of another would be deeply affected for a long time afterwards. It is reasonable to suspect that this would weigh much more heavily on how they act in the future than a meagre monetary fine.
Of course, the corollary is that people who have never experienced causing serious injury to another person, particularly by a given means (e.g. dooring), are less likely to consider that risk in everyday decision making (such as deciding to open a door into traffic). Discovering in hindsight that their act carries a hefty penalty is of obviously limited benefit to their victim.
Importantly though, broad changes in societal behaviour, or cultural change, can be achieved by other, complementary means. An example is drink driving. In decades past, drink driving was more commonplace and crucially, more socially acceptable. This has changed, due in part to stronger enforcement, but also conscious efforts by government to shift people’s thinking about how smart risking their own and others’ lives by getting behind the wheel while tanked really is – i.e., not very.
Once you achieve that cultural shift in thinking, a “magical” thing happens – ordinary people start enforcing what become behavioural norms – passengers admonish drivers who threaten the safety of cyclists, people stare with blank disappointment at their mate in the pub boasting about shaving a pesky rider. Changing societal behaviour represents a quantum leap over relying on regulatory (police) intervention, for the simple reason that there are a lot more ordinary people out there than police and courts, and they often exert greater influence over their peers.
It should be stressed that this doesn’t work for everyone – some people only respond to more heavy handed encouragement. But there is substantial evidence that – even if inadvertently – treating essentially honest and diligent people as criminals risks eroding their good will and turning them into actual criminals (or non-compliant with a given law). I would contend that this point is highly relevant to the current debate on how to better protect cyclists riding in traffic – we need the cooperation of motorists, not their submission.
There’s probably no single answer to making cycling safe. But I’d argue that a key missing element at present is a co-ordinated effort by influential bodies, particularly government, to take the heat out of the simmering motorist-cyclist debate and conflict. It has been argued that it is only a minority of motorists harbouring resentment toward cyclists. However, it would seem that the spread of uninformed and illegitimate views, particularly by opinion leaders such as the media and even politicians, is fuelling misconceptions of cyclists and helping normalise dangerous driving directed towards us. A cultural shift in attitudes towards cyclists is possible by reinforcing the message that cyclists are legitimate and vulnerable road users, deserving of motorists’ and society’s respect.