Motorist's State of Mind - Why Do Cars Hate Us?

Wouldn’t it be delightful if you could just cruise along, at whatever speed you choose, enjoying the scenery, chatting with fellow riders, or just plain let boredom or daydreams take over? But, every cycling adventure needs to be viewed as a combination of the enjoyment of the day, the weather, and of friends, but tempered with the knowledge and concentration required to navigate and avoid all of the surrounding activity. CARS!


In most of our previous articles our intent has been to give our riders information and skills that you directly use to improve your safety. Our intent in this article is to get you to think about something that is much more difficult to understand and control - the potential mental state of the motorist you are about to encounter. And how your actions may negatively or positively influence his/her behavior and your safety.

We realize this is a longer article than normal, and it doesn't have any funny videos. This is a serious article that we hope you will read and think about. Silver Wheels is committed to helping our members and others to become the best - safest - cyclists possible.


Our research, interviews and discussions uncovered a number of psychologies and behaviors of motorists. This list is certainly not an exhaustive list, merely one to begin the discussion. In each case we present a possible mental state of the motorist and give you some tools to help you be the best defensive rider possible. 

Take a look at the graphic below. We will discuss motorists that are Angry, Unsure of the Laws, and/or Distracted or Impaired. There can be combinations of two or even all three mental states. A distracted driver might get angry when a cyclist "just appeared out of nowhere on the road" as they looked up from their phone, or a driver that is unsure of the bike laws might get angry when we take the lane at an intersection. A truly angry driver thinks we don't follow the same rules and laws, and because they likely have seen cyclists break a law at some point, they may think we don't belong on the roads, that we should pay for licenses, and might "buzz us" to teach us where he thinks we should be riding, etc. 

Mental State of Motorist - Angry

This section deals with the full yellow Angry circle. The perception among non-cyclists is that cyclists think the "rules of the road" don’t apply to them. Even if the motorist sees 99 cyclists obeying the law, they will remember and focus on the 1 cyclist that was breaking the law. 

  • When you ride through a stop light or a stop sign without even looking for traffic, what does that say to motorists?
  • When you ride swerving from side to side in a lane with little regard for those behind you, how does that make motorists think of you?
  • When you ride more than two abreast and traffic approaches from the rear, what is a motorist supposed to think?
  • While maybe not technically illegal, what does a motorist feel when they are behind a group of 20 cyclists strung out in a single file line on a two lane road - making it nearly impossible for cars to pass us - because we don't separate into platoons?

This perception is held by many motorists and it was reflected in our interviews. The reader is referred to a report by Jennifer Evans-Cowley on October 27, 2015, in which several researchers presented on this subject at the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning conference.

Another theory is that motorists think that cyclists "offend the moral order"; it is interesting to contemplate and maybe prompt some self-reflection. It was written by Tom Stafford for the BBC Future. Stafford believes that deep within the human psyche there is an anger for people who "break the rules, who take benefits without contributing to the costs." Evolution has built into the human mind a hatred of cheaters and free riders which creates an anger when we see people acting this way. This anger emotion is generally evolution's way of getting people to overlook their short term self interest and to look at the collective social good. Cyclists trigger this anger in motorists when they see cyclists using the roads and they think that we aren't following the same rules as cars.


Jim is out on an evening ride and gets buzzed. Like so close and at such a high speed that he loses control and crashes. In the heat of the moment, he salutes “Buzz” with one finger. Buzz promptly stops, puts the Camaro in reverse and with great skill aims it directly at Jim, hitting him and smashing his bike. 

We talked to Jim weeks after the incident, after his convalescence and his words rang true when he said “it was not the time to confront or to educate the motorist on the law, or his behavior!” The moral is that right or wrong you cannot win with an Angry motorist, not in a contest of car vs. bike. 

Your strategy when confronted or assaulted with a vehicle? If the Angry motorist confronts - swallow - and apologize. Heed Jim’s words. There are and always will be motorists with “anger management issues” out there. Learning to diffuse your own anger in that moment will always be your wisest strategy. 

When you get a safe chance, write down their vehicle description and license number, or take a photo without escalating the situation.  If you do carry your cell phone while riding, consider turning it to the camera function before the ride commences so it’s at the ready.

Mental State of Motorist - Unsure of Law

“I often see people riding bicycles on the road. Is that really legal?" Huh? You know the answer, in fact some of you may even be able to quote chapter/verse of Ohio Title 45. Yet we’ve talked to many motorists who honestly ask the same question. These motorists are hard to spot and their behavior will most likely not give away their ignorance.


If the opportunity arises to educate a motorist, and you feel comfortable doing it, do so with humility. If a motorist is willing to have a civil conversation with you, stick to your knowledge of the law when discussing the situation. If the motorist becomes Angry, do not try to win the argument.  

Mental State of Motorist - Distracted or Impaired

These folks are a bit easier to spot as they may be weaving or driving erratically, or be trying to use their phone to call or text.  


Alert your riding companions and get ready to get out of the car's way. You should slow down and try to make eye contact and wave at the driver to get their attention. If you see an impaired driver, consider calling the police with a description of the car. 


So then, what is your best riding strategy? We offer what we call the rider’s Universal Strategy. This should always be your own fallback strategy, no matter the situation: 

  • Follow the Silver Wheels' Safe Cycling Quick List Practices.
  • Ride in accordance with the law.
  • Treat any moment of interaction with the utmost of concentration and never be a surprise to the motorist.
  • Remember that there are many bike riders who are equally unsure of the laws as the motorist. An experience with those riders may be the only thing the motorist is using in forming his/her opinion on cyclists in general.

Other references offered for further reading, research and edification: 

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