I've been thinking a lot lately about Empathy.
A lot of the rules that we use to order society: Fairness, Sharing, The Golden rule, rely on an underpinning of empathy, which I define as the ability to imagine yourself in the situation of another.
You may have learned the Golden Rule, or to share your toys, in kindergarten, but if you can't really imagine the impact your actions have on others, if you can't put yourself in the position of the kid whose toy has been stolen, it's kind of an empty form, that you learn "because I say so."
Fortunately, or unfortunately, most kids have the experience of getting a toy stolen, or being pushed by a bigger kid, etc etc, so you don't have to imagine so much as remember how it felt as an encouragement to "do to others".
I read a really disturbing article in the NY Times this weekend about animal abuse, and how it's being increasingly investigated and prosecuted as a marker of lack of empathy, and a forewarning (or correlation) with child abuse or spousal abuse.
The Scientist and I have had a lot of interesting discussions ( or as I think of it, one conversation that has gone on for years) about experience, and how that builds empathy, and how there are some kinds of things that are beyond reasonable arguments, which come down to visceral experience. Religion is one of those things- you either feel lifted up by emotion when you hear "Amazing Grace, or you don't. Discrimination is another- it's hard to understand the subtleties of how it feels to be a minority until you've experienced it in some sense.
To relate it to bicycling, most failures of sharing the road seem related to lack of empathy.
Drivers can't imagine what it would feel like to have a multi-ton steel box whiz by a foot from your elbow. They don't think about the person on two wheels, they see an obstacle to forward progress.
In turn, bikers don't think about someone who carefully waited for an opening to pass carefully, and then sits at a red light as the biker they carefully passed squeezes between parked cars and runs a light, making the driver wait for another chance in the next block to pass them safely. A biker might experience righteous indignation at someone risking the bikers life for a few second's gain. A driver might think "that's not fair" I obey the rules, why shouldn't that biker"
Empathy underlies our sense of fairness, and we get unusually angry and upset when someone (a scofflaw cyclist, a reckless driver, an investment banker) flagrantly violates the rules of fairness. I think that we often seem to over-react to these disregards to empathetic behaviour because we're personally invested in notions of fairness that underpin civil society.
The best solution for increasing road empathy in drivers, and the good behaviors that spring from empathy (fairness, sharing etc) of course is to get more people on bikes.
Even if people don't become regular cyclists, I think that the visceral experience of riding in traffic (like the experiences gained at the playground) will allow drivers to remember, rather than having to imagine a biker's perspective from scratch. Since most bikers are also drivers, I'm not sure what the solution is. I wonder if bikers felt less like a persecuted and endangered minority, they would feel less rebellious and less like vigilantes, disregarding the laws that are inconvenient to obey.
Infrastructure helps encourage people to get out there on bikes. So does positive media- especially media that suggests riding is a practical and enjoyable way to get from point A to point B, something that can be enjoyed by anyone. This is one of the reasons that I like to ride in normal clothes (the main reason of course is that it's so much easier). If people see a normal person, not a super athlete, riding in work clothes, maybe they can more easily imagine themselves on two wheels. I invite them to try, and hope that it will help them have more empathy for everyone on the road.