How Australian roads could be made safer for more cyclists

Thursday 30 May 2019

Bike icon on the road

Cycling participation on Australian roads has been steadily declining since 2011.

In summary

  • Viewing cyclists as legitimate road users could reduce anger from drivers and boost cyclist safety and participation
  • Drivers who view cyclists as illegitimate road users are more likely to express anger towards them
  • Drivers’ ability to identify with cyclists, their knowledge of road rules and whether they have witnessed reckless cycling affect perceptions of cyclists

New Swinburne research suggests increasing the perception that cyclists are legitimate road users could make cycling safer and increase participation.

The most recent National Cycling Participation survey by peak road transport and traffic body, Austroads, shows the rate of cyclists on Australian roads declined from 18.2 per cent in 2011 to 15.5 per cent in 2017.  Research has previously suggested that the risk of hostility and abuse from motorists can deter people from cycling.

Published in the journal, Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, this new research examined the role of beliefs about cyclists’ legitimacy as road users in driver anger towards cyclists. 

 A total of 237 Australian drivers took part in an online survey which assessed anger towards cyclists, perceived legitimacy of cyclists as road users and a range of other factors thought to relate to driver anger.

“The belief that cyclists were not legitimate road users was a strong predictor of driver anger towards cyclists, with drivers who did not consider cyclists to be legitimate road users displaying 15 per cent more anger towards cyclists than drivers who did,” says lead researcher and Swinburne psychology lecturer, Dr Julian Oldmeadow.  

Legitimacy refers to the belief that cyclists have the right to ride on the road and should be given the same level of respect as other road users.

“These results suggest that increasing the perceived legitimacy of cyclists as road users would likely reduce anger from motorists and ultimately lead to a safer and more enjoyable experience of sharing the road,” he says.

The research explored what factors contribute to cyclists being seen as either legitimate or illegitimate road users. These included if drivers identified as cyclists too, their knowledge of road rules related to cycling and whether they had witnessed reckless cycling.

Drivers who were also cyclists, or scored higher in a test on cycling-related road rules, tended to view cyclists as legitimate road users and showed less anger.

Meanwhile, drivers who had poorer knowledge of the cycling-related road rules, or witnessed reckless cycling more frequently, were less likely to view cyclists as legitimate road users.

Based on their findings, Dr Oldmeadow and his colleagues recommend that programs designed to increase cycling participation and safety should aim to increase the belief that cyclists are legitimate road users.  

“This could be achieved by improving knowledge of road rules amongst drivers and cyclists, encouraging cyclists to ride responsibly, and encouraging greater participation in cycling by motorists through better infrastructure and incentives,” he says.