Why do we still hear people joke about hitting cyclists?

It’s not funny when it actually happens. Wessel du Plooy/Shutterstock

As a community, we are increasingly vigilant about many forms of abuse. Online trolling, school bullying, domestic violence, workplace harassment, racism in sport – all are rightly condemned because of the potentially deadly harm they cause.

Whether we’re talking coward punches in pubs or misogyny in politics, abusive language and behaviour is dangerous. It undermines our sense of respect for one another.

So why, given our growing awareness of these dangers, do we still hear violence against cyclists publicly encouraged, even if only in jest?

By cyclists, I mean people riding bikes – any type of person, on any type of bike, riding for any reason, anywhere. Why are people “one of us” when they are in their car, on public transport or walking, but “other” and treated differently when on two wheels?

The language of violence

In Australia, casual references to hitting cyclists seem to be considered permissible. At least to the extent that someone with a public voice can make such a comment in the first place.

A recent example was provided by Perth ABC radio host Eoin Cameron, who on 29 August 2014, said on air:

I’m going to get a roo bar on my car to sort out the cyclists, they’re proving to be a bit like mozzies in my area.

In fairness, Cameron recognised that his comment was inappropriate. Almost immediately he referred to himself as “extremely naughty” and later made a full on-air apology.

A wider pattern

Cameron’s comment might be considered no more than “naughty” – a word with playful connotations of being mischievous or silly. But in the broader context, it’s indicative of the larger issue: it is commonly deemed acceptable to suggest violence towards people when they’re on a bike.

And it’s not a one-off, either – Cameron’s gaffe is one of a growing list of anti-cyclist outbursts in the media.

Earlier this year, Daily Telegraph journalist Claire Harvey ranted that “a lot of cyclists [are] ungrateful dickheads” who should thank drivers for not hitting them. Her opinion was wrapped in a gossamer-thin veil of “humour”.

In 2009, comedians Magda Szubanski and Julia Morris provoked outcry when they appeared in a Good News Week skit that ended with them calling for drivers to open their car doors in front of cyclists, or to drive at them and “take ‘em out”.

And in 2012, Australian cricketer Shane Warne wrote a flurry of indignant tweets after hitting a Melbourne cyclist’s back wheel with his car.

Generally, this type of incident seems to play out in the following order:

  1. General negative comments about cyclists
  2. Actual threat of violence towards cyclists
  3. Public outcry
  4. Public apology (sometimes)
  5. Repeat ad nauseam.

But what this template doesn’t show is the flow-on effect in terms of wider public attitudes.

Just harmless banter?

It’s hard to think of another group in our community, who are engaged in a legal activity, against whom it would be considered acceptable or funny to threaten with violence.

Of course, satire, self-deprecation, taking the piss and not taking ourselves too seriously are hallmarks of Australian culture. Should cyclists lighten up and take it with good humour? It’s all a bit of fun, right?

Yet this isn’t harmless fun. The importance and impact of language in public discourse was highlighted in the recent move to replace the macho term “king hit” with the disempowered “coward punch”. Similarly, the words used in media rants that encourage violence against cyclists have immediate repercussions.

Participants in a cycling safety study in the Australian Capital Territory reported increased harassment in the days immediately after the rants by Szubanski, Morris and Warne. Many of these regular commuting cyclists experienced a significant increase in physical intimidation from drivers, vehicles overtaking too closely, verbal abuse from drivers and passengers, and use of car horns.

Public incitement to violence against cyclists validates the view of a minority of drivers who already hold anti-cyclist views. At worst, it can encourage aggression and normalise the concept that real-life violence against cyclists is acceptable. This endorsement is potentially more influential, and therefore more dangerous, when made by a celebrity or public figure.

Standing up to abuse

As a community, we need to continue to challenge those people who feel it is appropriate to espouse any type of abuse or violence, regardless of the supposed justification.

There is little provision for legal sanctioning of this behaviour. Media codes of practice generally permit content that may incite violence, as long as it is humorous (comedy or satire) or part of a debate on issues of public interest. However, anti-cyclist ranting is contributing to an unsafe cycling environment and the appropriateness of encouraging violence needs to be questioned.

Already in 2014 there have been 32 cyclist deaths in Australia. We need to challenge any sense of complacency about road trauma, including the idea that aggression on our roads is acceptable or funny.

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