Study finds cyclists more confident on road than car drivers

QUT researchers investigating why Australia has one of the lowest cycling rates in the world have made a surprising discovery – cyclists feel more confident on the road than car drivers.

Their survey of 595 people compared driver licence holders who cycled regularly with licence holders who did not cycle and asked them to assess various traffic scenarios and their own confidence, perceived skill and opinions about risks.

“We found that cyclists overall were more confident, less inattentive and more in favour of stricter laws,” Professor Narelle Haworth said.

The researchers speculated that cyclists’ greater confidence, coupled with a tendency to “downplay” the risk of cycling, made it easier for them to muster up the courage to keep riding in environments dominated by cars.

“Cyclists feel highly vulnerable in traffic but seem to resolve the cognitive dissonance of continuing to engage in such risky activities by downplaying the consequences of crashes, by demanding more enforcement and rules, and by having more confidence in their road and cycling skills,” Professor Haworth said.

The study, which was conducted by QUT’s Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety-Queensland (CARRS-Q), also found several key differences between men and women.

Women perceived a higher risk to being on the road than men, regardless of whether they were in a car or on a bike.

Professor Haworth said that finding was consistent with many other studies that showed women were generally more risk averse than men.

Professor Narelle Haworth.

Female drivers also felt they were more distracted on the road than female cyclists thought themselves. But the perception of risk regarding using roads was no different between female drivers and female cyclists.

“We also found that drivers were aware of their cars’ high injury potential in crashes with cyclists,” Professor Haworth said.

Australia has one of the lowest cycling rates in the world, with the 2019 National Cycling Participation Survey by Austroads finding that only 10 per cent of women and 17 per cent of men reported cycling in the previous week.

Professor Haworth said the study had specifically looked at the issue of ‘perceived’ risk – which often did not reflect actual levels of risk.

“Regardless of whether or not something is actually dangerous, if people think it is it will still deter them from that activity,” she said.

“There’s no doubt that cyclists are more vulnerable on our roads than vehicle occupants, who have the benefit of air bags, seat belts and the vehicle itself to protect them if a crash occurs.

“Our study results were consistent with other national and international studies on all sorts of activities that show women to be more risk adverse, to identify more negative outcomes and to participate less often in risky activities than men do.”

CARRS-Q researcher Wanda Griffin, who conducted the survey, said she hoped the results of the study would help researchers and health experts continue to understand why people did and didn’t ride bikes.

“Like in other low-cycling countries, Australian non-cyclists – and women in particular – perceive cycling to be extremely risky,” Ms Griffin said.

“For many potential cyclists, these perceived risks are a big reason why they don’t ride.

“But, importantly, we found that female drivers thought being on the road was just as risky as female cyclists. So avoiding cycling did not make them feel any more safe.

“Being able to better understand the factors influencing these perceived risks means being able to counter them and get more people riding bikes and reaping the health benefits.”

The research by Ms Griffin, Professor Haworth and Professor Divera Twisk has been published in the Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour journal.

** CARRS-Q staff will be participating in Queensland’s biggest celebration of active travel this month – the Bike with Brisbane – Active Commute Day on the morning of March 18. **

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