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Gear Prudence: That recent Onion article about pedestrians and eye contact got me thinking about how bicyclists can more safely interact with drivers, so I’m putting a new approach to the test. Rather than make eye contact with drivers, which in my experience only seems to result in angry glares, I’m going to make it seem like I don’t see them at all—like I’m totally oblivious. Faced with this uncertainty, my theory is that they’ll act way more cautiously around me and I’ll be much safer. And since I’ll only be pretending to be not paying attention, the risk seems pretty low. What do you think? —Entreating You: Effective Strategy?  

Dear EYES: Almost every pedestrian and bicyclist safety campaign harps on the importance of making eye contact with drivers. The prevalence of this advice makes it a ready target for lampoon, and “Pedestrian Crossing Street Makes Sure To Look At Approaching Car So Driver Will Feel More Guilty If They Run Him Over” in The Onion is the satirical apotheosis. Before tackling whether feigned obliviousness will prove beneficial, it’s worth looking (no pun intended) at how well eye contact with drivers works for pedestrians and cyclists. 

Studies suggest that staring is good. “A pedestrian’s stare and drivers’ stopping behavior: A field experiment at the pedestrian crossing” in Safety Science and “Analysis of the Influence of Pedestrians’ eye Contact on Drivers’ Comfort Boundary During the Crossing Conflict” in Procedia Engineering reach similar conclusions with similar experiments. Drivers felt compelled to slow down and stop for the pedestrians who glared at them. Eye contact was shown to be a nonverbal cue that creates social pressure to comply with traffic laws. The problem with this paradigm, though, has less to do with its effectiveness than where it places the burden. Is it fair that the vulnerable pedestrian or the put-upon bicyclist must compel drivers to uphold their legal responsibilities? That rankles. And given the growing volume and popularity of in-car distractions, it is increasingly unlikely that penetrating gazes will continue to work. 

Nevertheless, your theory intrigues GP and he wishes to subscribe to your newsletter. Demanding attentiveness by faking cluelessness might indeed cause a certain subset of drivers to react more cautiously around you. If you’re perceived to be unaware, maybe you’ll benefit from their inclination toward treating you better, as if you were a helpless puppy or kitty cat. Putting yourself in this seemingly vulnerable position could work, but just as often, will probably fail. You might get through the intersection safely, but you might also get yelled at for being careless and self-involved. Plus, pretending to be not paying attention while actually paying attentions sounds way more risky than just plain old paying attention. Deception is a tangled web and all that. —GP