Are women cyclists being killed because they aren’t confident enough on the road? A thoughtful post about this topic.

Helen Blackman

As British women cyclists bring home more gold from the Track Cycling World Championships, we are reminded that in London, female cyclists are more likely to be killed or seriously injured than are their male counterparts. One blogger recently worked out that in one area, it is only women who are killed . Now I think his map drawing is a little selective, but one thing is true. As the BBC reported back in 2009, in collisions between cyclists and lorries, the victim is far more likely to be female than male, even though fewer women cycle.

From this there follows speculation. What were the women doing? Is it because they wait at red lights and so lorries turn over the top of them? Are they more hesitant and less assertive than their male counterparts? Is their road positioning less good? All of which strikes me as just so much…

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20 responses to “

  1. I certainly don’t think drivers are more agressive around women. That would be the same as being more agressive around cyclists with helmets. I would be curious to know if they are getting hit more than men or if their rate of survival after getting hit is lower.

    • Why don’t you think they are more aggressive around women? I’m not sure I follow the logic… that it’s the same as being aggressive towards cyclists with helmets? How so? Can you clarify/explain?

  2. Interesting article. However – as I’ve commented on Helen’s blog – I’ve never noticed I’ve been treated any differently because I’m a woman cycling. I know some women complain at getting wolf whistles or cat calls from drivers while they’re on their bikes – I’ve never had any of that, thankfully.

    I think staying safe on a bike, particularly in London, is about riding confidently. If you’re nervous and stick to the rules then you’re more likely to end up in harm’s way. It’s not blaming the victim – it’s blaming the system which allows cyclists to be that vulnerable.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting! Clearly I care about these issues so I like when people post about. Gets people thinking.

      I totally agree that riding confidently is absolutely a critical part of riding safely anywhere. That’s sooo true! However, are we not stereotyping when we say that women are less confident than men? Are we making a big assumption here that there are few less-than-confident men?

      Blaming the victim can be used in a couple different ways. In the more literal sense, that would be taking a case where a cyclist was killed and focusing on what she or he did to cause the accident or death. Questions like, “were they wearing a helmet?” or “were they riding confidently?” are, indeed, victim blaming because it’s focused solely on the actions of the victim. The questions are victim blaming because they ignore the person who ran them over, letting them off the hook. It wouldn’t matter if they were wearing a helmet if no one hit them in the first place, right? Now, questions like, “was the driver talking on a cell phone?” “was the driver distracted?” are more appropriate for placing accountability where it belongs–on the person who ran the cyclist over.

      But, I will admit that it’s not so clear cut much of time. Especially if it really is an accident. Freak things happen, and sometimes it really is just a bad situation where NO ONE did anything wrong, or both people did something wrong.

      One thing seems sure, though — when people are saying that women lack the confidence to keep themselves from being run over…that’s victim blaming.

      Or, if that doesn’t work, then people say “women just follow the rules too much.” HUH? So, following the rules gets you killed? That’s confusing to me and doesn’t make sense. Besides, I would think that it actually takes confidence to follow the rules and riding with traffic, no?

      I replied to the first part your comment on her blog, but might as well add it here too:

      It’s always good to hear cases of non-discrimination. A little bit of “faith in humanity restored” perhaps?

      However, it’s also important for people to not discount the reality of a widespread problem, like the one discussed here, that harms a GROUP on the basis of ONE, individual experience. If there’s one female CEO, does that mean the glass ceiling doesn’t exist? If there’s a Black president (now I’m talking US context of course) does that mean racism has ended? And as even you admit, you have not received cat calls, so then does that mean it doesn’t happen? By your own statement, you admit that it does.

      These are working hypotheses. Given the historical, political, and economic context of global sexism, this is by far the most plausible I have seen that actually addresses this context without victim blaming or stereotyping.

      But that’s why, as I mentioned in my reply to Helen, research and systematic inquiry is crucial for understanding issues like these. We realized long ago that human minds were not good at just “seeing” patterns while going about everyday life. They are important, and can help inform a systematic inquiry, but they are by no means sufficient. Social psychologists have done a lot of work to show how such observations are often faulty, because of things like confirmation bias and hindsight bias.

      • Thanks for responding to my comment at such length – clearly it’s a topic you feel strongly about!

        I wasn’t saying that all women are nervous cyclists, and that all men are confident cyclists – far from it. I consider myself a confident cyclist and I see plenty of other confident women cyclists. I also see men who aren’t confident. But overall, I’d say that a higher proportion of women are less confident on their bikes than men. I’m absolutely not saying that by being less confident on your bike then you’re responsible for what happens to you – but it does mean that you’re more likely to be in harm’s way. At red lights, for example, I regularly see cyclists dutifully lined up on the left hand side of of the traffic, rather than putting themselves up front where they can be seen – don’t they realise that they’re potentially in the way of a left turning vehicle?? If one of those cyclists is hit by a car, it’s absolutely the driver’s fault not the cyclist’s (incidentally stats released by the Department for Transport here a few years back showed that drivers were solely responsible for around two thirds of collisions between adult cyclists and motor vehicles).

        In all my experience of cycling in London I don’t think I’ve ever been treated less favourably by drivers because I’m a woman. I’ve never seen other women treated less favourably either. If anything, it’s more the opposite – I think drivers are more likely to be more careful around cyclists they perceive as more vulnerable – for example, studies have shown that drivers give cyclists who aren’t wearing helmets more space. Drivers are more likely to get angry with boy racers (the ones who run red lights..and yes, in my experience they are mostly guys) and the cyclists who they think are in their way – the ones who are claiming their fair share of the road or ‘taking the lane’. Not the ones who are hugging the kerb.

        Sorry – I seem to have gone on for longer than I intended! I guess you could say i feel strongly about it too. It’s good to have a debate like this!

      • My pleasure 🙂 Feel strongly, check! Love to write about, double check! Blogging can be so boring without fun comments! And please never apologize for writing at length! This is much more interesting to read than my assigned readings for class… haha!

        I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I agree and disagree (surprise!) Being off too far on the side of the road is dangerous (and was one of the very first things I learned about when I started riding on the road), but confidence can lead to stupidity. Come to think of it, I got the exact same advice, and have heard it repeated, when learning to drive a car. But confidence can lead to reckless and aggressive riding, which is unsafe.

        I think a lot of us — myself included — have talked about confidence and how important it is. There’s a lot of talk about women being less confident, but that’s all based on our non-systematic perceptions, which we really can’t trust. Confirmation bias (once we believe something is true, then we start to only SEE and to REMEMBER things that support that belief. And it’s all unconscious, we don’t do it on purpose) is too much of a problem for that.

        So I think we should think about confidence and maybe challenge that a little bit. Jason and I were talking a bit about this, and he proposed an idea that I think makes sense. Partly because I’ve been there and thought this myself as a driver. When drivers see a cyclist who is dressed all in a kit AND who is a man AND maybe even who is taking up a lot of space and/or riding fast… do drivers really sit there and go “Oh, wow! Look at that confident cyclist! I must respect their space?” I highly doubt it’s anything like that. On the flip side, if it’s a woman, maybe dressed in regular clothes, maybe even not taking up a lot of space or riding fast….are drivers thinking “Hah. Look at that woman. Women annoy me, I’m going to aggressively show her as a I pass!” I don’t think that’s the case either (which could have been implied in some of what I was saying). [Yes, I’m kind of exaggerating these thoughts to hopefully make this a more interesting read]

        What might be more likely going on is something like this: in the case of the man example: “Great. Another one of these assholes. Bet he’s gonna cut me off or do something like that” so then the drivers are more likely to give space because they’re cautious. Worried. They don’t want to get in an accident. Part of what they’re doing, perhaps, is stereotyping. Men = aggressive (or assholes). This fits with what you were saying about the “boy racers”

        For the women, it might actually seem a little “friendlier” … they might think “Okay. there’s a woman. No biggie. I’m just gonna pass her” …. then perhaps they suck at driving or just otherwise weren’t being extra cautious and ran her over.

        It took a while for me to get here (haha)… but it really might not be that these drivers are more aggressive towards women. But, they still could be basing their behavior on sexist stereotypes (men = aggressive. watch out for them. women = passive. Go ahead and pass, they wont be trouble). Their driving might not be aggressive at all or might not appear aggressive to onlookers even when it is, but the consequences end up being the same.

        Also, I have heard the exact opposite of the study you mentioned. I’ve heard that drivers treat cyclists without helmets more aggressive because they don’t really like that they aren’t wearing helmets and that pisses them off, or something.

        And of course…all of this got my research brain going. We might even be asking the wrong question here. When doing research, one of the first things you learn is to ask the right questions. Does X cause Y is usually a very bad question because it’s just too simple. Does sexism cause car drivers to be more aggressive to women cyclists. Eh (as in, buzzer noise) That’s not really going to work. The better questions are … under what conditions would sexist stereotypes about men and women’s respective behaviors contribute to drivers being more likely to pass the cyclists unsafely. So on and so forth.

        We also can’t know why drivers act the way they do until we talk to them. You (or any cyclists) really can’t say whether or not you’ve been treated differently because you’re a woman. There’s too much else going on that influences what you see in the present moment, plus there’s all the stuff you don’t see (like how did that driver treat the previous 3 cyclists she or he encountered that day and how does it compare to how they treated you). Plus, I’m going to guess that it’d be important to consider things like what the cyclists was wearing (kit vs regular clothes) or how much the driver knows about cycling–whether the driver is a cyclist themselves. Asking the cyclists wouldn’t be the best way to understand drivers’ behaviors and motivations. It’d be cool, though, to sit as a passenger for a bunch of drivers and to watch how they act around every cyclist they pass, with some follow up questions. Until then, this question will remain unanswered. But I think someone needs to get on this, because if women are disproportionally dying, then this needs to be addressed!

        On a scale of 1-10, after reading this reply how much of a geek am I? haha

  3. Thanks for drawing my attention to this article. A really interesting read! I think Cycling with Heels has made a very valid point above: cycling with confidence is key in London! I also have a very loud mouth when needed and am more than happy to use it!

    • Thanks! I’m really glad she wrote it! I saw your comment on her blog and replied there as well. But thanks so much for chiming in!

      I agree about confidence and want to add that it’s key everywhere! =) haha. I’ve never been to London…so yea.

      • I have a riding instructor’s ability to project. More than one driver has jumped at me intoning ‘Put that phone down before you kill someone’. Plus, I swear a lot and quite inventively. Fortunately I’ve learned to temper this so that I don’t get into too much trouble!
        Thanks for an interesting discussion, over here and on my blog as well.

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