The Recumbent Attribution Error

Don’t be lazy when trying to find something to blame

As spring gets into full swing, I’ve dusted off the recumbent to put some miles in ahead of Saturday’s 400km Southern Uplands brevet.

After getting used to the usual antics of drivers between Balerno and the city centre – close passes, cutting in and out of lanes, aggressive driving and horn use – it’s been pretty refreshing to enjoy bags of passing room, no cutting up and no aggression.

I don’t believe this comes from some mystical power of the recumbent to soothe the angry beast behind the wheel, but simply because it jars people out of the well-worn groove that “it’s only a bike, I don’t need to give him much room”, or “it’s only a bike, how dare he hold me up from speeding to the next red light”, or whatever.

Something interesting did happen the other day though, as I was motoring along Slateford Road at over 25mph in the morning peak. See if you can spot the driver who apparently failed to see my recumbent?

It’s not close, I merely chose this as an illustration of the principle – hands up if your default response to this sort of situation would be “well, what does he expect riding around on an invisible bike?” or maybe “he got lucky, he could have been taken out if the distance had been a bit less”?

For my part, I was mildly vexed that the driver had pulled out on me when I was going so fast – only by flooring it was he able to keep the car in front until I rocketed past at the next set of lights. However, after countless thousands of urban miles, I know better than to take the lazy option of thinking that a bike which is at any distance just a few fractions of a degree lower than another bike is actually going to be hard to see.

Instead, my experience tells me that while there’s no meaning difference in visibility (or conspicuousness?) you’re never going to eliminate that proportion of bad driving that comes from not looking at all, or more likely – being seen perfectly but the driver ultimately doesn’t care.

This was illustrated nicely immediately afterwards… take a look at the full clip:

Nobody would ever suggest that the driver who pulls across multiple lanes of rush-hour traffic didn’t see the white car – that would be ridiculous. We find it easy to attribute this kind of driving to a total failure to look or (more likely) a high risk threshold / unhealthy disregard for the safety of others.

Throw a recumbent into the mix though, and even fellow cyclists are worryingly prone to tacking the blame for any mishap on the height of the vehicle (am I that much lower than the car in the video? Really?)

This “recumbent attribution error” is so common that I can’t even be bothered to find any examples (if you like, try googling for Councillor Michael Stanton, who infamously told a registered disabled constituent that he should have gone to Dignitas, the Swiss euthanasia clinic, rather than ride a recumbent, and you should find some robust discussion).

In my experience of riding a recumbent in rush hour Edinburgh, the only safety disadvantages are found in a few niche, easily avoided circumstances. They’re massively outweighed by the huge safety benefits of removing almost all the wilfully terrible driving that a cyclist normally receives.

In fact, it’s easy to argue that it’s probably a lot safer because it forces the rider away from the temptation to, say, skim the side of parked cars on the approach to a side street, so you just don’t do it. Combined with the mirror, taking a much more positive road position is probably half the advantage, with the rest coming from drivers’ apparent fear to be aggressive towards you.

I’ve been meaning to write something on recumbent safety for years but just can’t get into it as a topic – probably because whenever I ride mine, it feels so safe that I can’t understand why I keep going back to a normal bike for the rat race.

13 Comments

  1. The sort of idiots who pass close to upright bikes are so stupid that they think recumbent bikes are for disabled people and they don’t want to end up on the news for killing a paralympic athlete in training. Well, that thought keeps me amused anyway: 😉

  2. Dave

    MJ, I once overheard a conversation between a group of school kids when I was stopped at a crossing light. One started to laugh at the bike and was set upon by another because “he’s disabled”. There was an amusing thoughtful silence as they contemplated how that could be, since my arms and legs were evidently working better than most…

  3. Zebee

    I certainly find ‘bents get more room and general respect than uprights.
    What really annoys me are the people who think that a square foot of flag on a pole will miraculously make it visible.

    A mate with a velomobile was hassled by police who were convinced that something 2m long, 1.5m high and 1m wide and bright, eyesearingly bright, green was “invisible” and a flag on a stick would somehow fix this.

    (Which just goes to show that cops are as prone to fallacies about safety as anyone. Just cos they are cops doesn’t mean they have thought about what they see!)

    I dunno anyone who ran into a cardboard box that big and that colour would convince any copper they didn’t see it, but put wheels on the thing and apparently it’s quite different.

  4. john mills

    Hi Dave

    My experiences mirror most other recumbent riders in that you get more room and consideration. However your vid suggests an excess of poor judgement on the part of the driver(s). I think many drivers lack the ability to make good observations and make a related judgement call based on that observation.

  5. Graham Jones

    My recumbent experiences mirror those described. I ride uprights fairly infrequently now, not because they are more fun, faster, more comfortable, but because traffic is almost universally more cautious and courteous. It just makes riding a much more pleasant experience. White van drivers cross the white line to pass. Traffic waits to pass when it’s safe, not trying to squeeze past on a bend despite me being in the primary position. I’ve even had people stop to wave me out of side roads. Trikes seem to bring out the best in people. There is definitely a correlation between ride height and passing distance: for me, the BikeE gets the least room, the Trice QNT the most. Kind of makes nonsense of the idea that the lower you are the more ‘invisible’ you will be.

    In seven years I can only count two close passes. Every time I’m on an upright, it’s more like one close pass every two minutes…

  6. JimAtLaw

    I would guess this might be what I would call Empathy Bias. Many if not most of the people you talk to do not ride and have never ridden a recumbent, and do not view them as just another bicycle but rather some unusual contraption. On the other hand, most of them, even the cyclists, do drive a car, and when presented with a circumstance like this, they tend to adopt the position of the party they have the most in common with in the situation – even for some of the cyclists, this is the auto driver, and they look for reasons it’s the other party’s fault and therefore would not be *their* fault if they were driving *their* car.

  7. Paul Brown

    Agreed, I definitely am noticed more on my Xstream recumbent… and probably treated more couteously, with LOTS of smiles. I call it the “high WTF factor”… my head is at eye level with most car drivers – it’s not that I’m so low, it’s that standard bikes put you so high…

  8. Glen Aldridge

    There are several factors that come into play with drivers. – 1st. is the number of distractions, decisions & visual inabilities. Humans cannot judge distances or speed of approaching vehicles. Add in to the mix trying to time a decision to enter the flow of traffic plus the radio, cell phone, cigarette lighting, screaming kid or significant other or worse yet a back seat driver giving you instructions, now add in the 12 blind spots on an average vehicle combined with a driver having to estimate how far away the side of his car is away from passing you on a bike & you start to understand that the driver is not so much an idiot but more likely having his senses overloaded. Ride defensively & pity the poor state of mind a driver is in. :)

  9. I like the idea of the Empathy Bias. Other experienced cyclists don’t really like you on a recumbent as you don’t ‘look safe’ in their view. (…and they’re the majority)

    They ride a ‘sensible’ bike which does put them in a head first, head down position*. They’ll also drive a ‘sensible’ car too of course (in their view). Recumbents are ‘wrong’ and not to be trusted as you are weighted in the centre of bike and ride head up with a mirror and working brakes.

    A bike like the High Baron is pretty fast and flash so could be provocative you know 😉

    * You have a couple of these as well of course so your observations are based on experience rather than repeating pub or internet chat.

  10. “They ride a ‘sensible’ bike which does put them in a head first, head down position” – only if they’re a racer and even then, I think it’s hands first, head down, isn’t it? Same for the crack about brakes that don’t work.

    I’ve ridden most of my life, so I think I’m pretty experienced and I like recumbents, even though I’ve never ridden one and don’t particularly expect to ride one ever. I guess what we really need is more people on relaxed upright bikes and leave the racers in their niche :-)

  11. wisob

    Do you know, I think both of those drivers would have pulled out whether you were on an upright, a recumbent, or in a car. They’re both situations where there’s a pretty continuous stream of traffic, and in order to get out you have to grab whatever half space is available, and assume that other drivers will slow down for you (which they probably will, as they do the same thing themselves).
    Before you accuse me of being car-centric, I reckon I probably cycle at least as far as I drive most years…

  12. Dave

    @wisob agreed. It’s so tempting for people to say things like “ah, his jersey was a dark colour” and nod knowingly when the reality is that a huge proportion of bad driving is quite agnostic to the actions of the victim.

    I would suggest if the two cars had collided at the end of this video, the one proceeding straight on would be a victim of poor driving – YMMV of course.

    Neither incident was really close, but unfortunately I can’t manufacture these things on demand 😛

  13. Balor

    Heh, this is more like ‘Just world fallacy’.

    Two people I’ve personally known (randoneers) were killed by cars. In both cases they were riding quite conventional road bikes with bright clothing.

    An other person I know completed Superandoneer series on a lowracer with no trouble except for multiple pinchflats (Russian roads, *sigh*)

    I myself, however, did not notice that much of a difference. I’ve been narrowly missed a few times myself, both on DF and my midracer.

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