Armadillos and Cyclists
How Intuition and Instinct Can Lead to Trouble
Our biggest challenge is teaching people that they have
something to learn.
A naturalist recently told about his study of armadillos in Texas. He described that, when threatened, armadillos rise up to “look big” and deter attack. This is an appropriate response to 4-legged predators, such as coyotes; but it can be tragically inappropriate when the “predator” has 4 wheels. The naturalist would often see road kill with the only apparent damage being a small crescent-shaped nick in the shell near the head where it had been hit by a car’s undercarriage. If the animal had hunkered-down instead of rising up, it would likely have not been hurt.
Like armadillos, many cyclists respond inappropriately to the perceived danger of passing traffic on the road. The intuitive reaction is to “stay out of the way” by riding on sidewalks, or on the wrong side of the road (to see traffic coming) or hug the curb and ride in the gutter.
In a way, cyclists’ response is opposite to armadillos; they “ride small”. What is similar is that instinct or intuition gets them in trouble.
These responses make cyclists less visible. Since other drivers on the road must see cyclists to avoid them, “staying out of the way” detracts from safety — much like “looking big” to cars endangers armadillos.
|Controlling the lane|
Riding at the extreme edge also encourages motorist mistakes, such as trying to pass in the same lane (squeezing by) instead of giving adequate clearance by using the next lane. Another mistake is cutting-off the cyclist in a “right-hook” or “left-cross” turn. All of these problems, and others, are much less likely if the cyclist rides further left. Not only that, riding near the middle of the lane makes escape from a bad situation easier.
You may think that intelligent humans should not be compared to dumb animals such as armadillos that rely on instinct. But intuition is much like instinct — it guides unconscious action. Intuition often works well, but not always.
Consider investing behavior, where many people “buy high and sell low”. They chase past performance, buying hot stocks or mutual funds at high prices, then sell at a loss when the inevitable correction comes. This boom and bust pattern has repeated many times, from at least the Dutch tulip mania of the early 17th century to the “dotcom bubble” at the end of the 20th century.
We need to teach people to overcome their intuition about bicycle operation — and to overcome the misinformation they were taught as children in “bike safety” lectures from well-meaning adults. We must teach that is much safer to “control the lane” when conditions make passing unsafe. We also need to teach using lights at night, complying with traffic signals (including how to use vehicle detectors) and similar things.
As cycling advocates, our biggest challenge is teaching people that they have something to learn. Education is the key to overcoming armadillo instincts.
The League has failed to produce and distribute effective Public Service Announcements for the mass media. These could tell the public that “bicycles are vehicles that should be operated on the same roads, by the same rules and under the same rights as other vehicles”. But instead, they lobby for segregated facilities — facilities that reinforce the fallacies that underlie armadillo instincts.
The League of American Bicyclists had an excellent educational program, based on Effective Cycling by John Forester. Unfortunately, LAB has kept the light hidden under a bushel by failing to market this vital program effectively. The League has not tried seriously to inform its members and member clubs that they have something to learn by encouraging broad attendance in ‘Smart Cycling’ classes.
Currently, the best ‘bicycle driving’ classes are Cycling Savvy, A Cycling Education Program of the American Bicycling Education Association.
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© Copyright 2003-2017 Fred Oswald and LAB Reform. May be copied with attribution.
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The author is a Professional Engineer in Ohio and a certified bicycling safety instructor.
Minor update Apr. 2017