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Even cyclists admit that some of their ilk can be maddeningly mercurial, blowing through intersections and weaving through traffic. But it should be pretty clear that a 20-lb. bike is considerably less dangerous than a half-ton car. Last year 241 pedestrians or cyclists were killed by motorists in New York City, yet only 17 of those drivers faced criminal charges. The New York police department--as is the case with most police forces around the country--almost never investigates a car-on-bike or car-on-pedestrian accident unless the victim dies or the driver is found to be under the influence. "If you're a cyclist who's been hit by a motorist in a couple-ton vehicle, that's like deadly assault," says former Olympic cyclist Robert Mionske, now a lawyer in Portland, Ore. "To have an officer say that there's nothing they can do is incredibly frustrating."
Creating a New Normal
So why are cyclists so hated? Blame social-identity theory. Cyclists can be dismissed as a sub-subculture, one far removed from an American mainstream defined by cars and drivers. To a driver, a cyclist is an unpredictable outsider, someone implicitly less worthy of respect--or for that matter, of space on the road. And if one biker blows a red light, that's evidence that all these outsiders are careless, whereas a lawbreaking driver isn't held up as proof that all drivers are thoughtless. (It doesn't help that the very act of driving can blunt your patience with and sympathy for those outside the climate-controlled bubble of your car.)
It's not that drivers are unusually susceptible to this kind of confirmation bias. There are simply far more drivers than bikers operating in towns and cities designed for cars. "People tend to look at the out group and overgeneralize them," says Ian Walker, a professor of traffic psychology at the University of Bath in Britain, "while you tend to underplay the differences within your own group."
The brains of the U.S.'s more than 200 million licensed drivers can't be rewired. But there are ways to ensure that bikes, cars and pedestrians can all safely use the street. In the Netherlands, for example, drivers are drilled early to watch out for cyclists on the road, and bikers enjoy physically separated lanes. (A Dutch driver is trained to reach over her body with her right hand when opening the door to exit, which allows her to check easily for any cyclists approaching from the rear.) The Netherlands isn't the only European country where bikes have become the norm. In Denmark, 18% of trips are taken by cycle, and London's bulky gray "Boris bikes," named after the city's Tory cyclist mayor, have transformed how residents get around the British capital. But Amsterdam is a two-wheeled heaven. "In America you can feel unwelcome, but in Amsterdam the system accepts you," says Andy Clark, president of the League of American Bicyclists. "You don't feel like you're outside the law."