The most physically vulnerable road users – pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists – might also be vulnerable because, unlike motorists, they are clearly human when on the road. Because of this, they invoke automatic and involuntary processes of interpersonal perception in drivers who see them, and this extra mental workload can slow the drivers’ decisions. Here we explored the issue by asking drivers to describe traffic scenes and content analysing their descriptions. We found that people in motor vehicles were consistently described in vehicular terms (“a car is turning…” rather than “a driver is turning…”), even when the occupants were visible, whereas people on foot or on bicycles were consistently described in human terms (“a bicyclist is turning…” rather than “a bicycle is turning…”), reflecting a fundamental difference in how people perceive these different types of road user. Interestingly, motorcyclists occupied a grey area in which they were as likely to be described as a person as they were to be described as a vehicle, and individual participants were often inconsistent in how they described motorcyclists. We conclude that different types of road user are perceived – and therefore mentally processed – in qualitatively different ways. Vulnerable road users are normally perceived as fellow humans whereas motorists are normally perceived differently, effectively as machines.
Keywords: vulnerable road users; bicyclists; pedestrians; motorcyclists; road safety; gaze perception; eye