"Antibiotic Resistance" and "Share the Road" Signs Can Be Grossly Misinterpreted
he sign reads “Share the Road.” It's usually a bright yellow diamond featuring a black line drawing of a bicycle. Variations on the sign exist, but they all pretty much send the message that cars should be on the lookout for cyclists and give them some breathing room.
Or at least that's what I, a cyclist sometimes and a motor vehicle operator other times, assumed was the message they sent. Especially given that the occupants of even a small automobile will barely feel a car-bicycle crash that will at the very least likely bust a bike rider's ribs and crack a collarbone.
A recent, study, however, rocked my two-wheeling world: “Although often described as a reminder to motorists that bicyclists may use the travel lane, bicyclists frequently complain that motorists interpret the sign to mean that they should get out of the way,” wrote North Carolina State University researchers George Hess and M. Nils Peterson in the journalPLOS ONE. They noted that the state of Delaware, which is just wide enough for two lanes of traffic in each direction, got rid of its “Share” in November 2013 because, according to a state document, “some believe the plaque puts more onus on the bicyclist to share the road than the motorist.”
Hess and Peterson conducted a Web-based survey of attitudes about the rights of cyclists to some breathing room on the road. They found that signs reading “Share the Road” had virtually the same effect on respondents' mentality as did no signage at all. But an alternative wording that appeared to at least somewhat alert people to the life and limb of bike riders did exist. “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” got more people to say that a driver should wait until it's safe to pass and then give the bike a wide berth.
Whether such signage will translate into behavioral changes among real drivers remains to be seen. And based on my experience cycling while decked out in high-vis neon-yellow clothing and lit up like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, a lot of drivers do not see all that well.
An even bigger public health issue exists that involves the interpretation of language. The term “antibiotics” has often mystified members of the lay public who do not know the difference between bacteria, which antibiotics can fight, and viruses, against which antibiotics head for the egress. (See Barnum, P. T., on sowing sign uncertainty.) Now we learn via research by Wellcome Trust, a global health foundation charity based in London, that the expression “antibiotic resistance” creates further confusion.
If you've heard of MRSA but think it's Mr. A's wife, antibiotic resistance is a growing and deadly problem referring to populations of bacteria evolving so that they are no longer killed by a given drug—the bacteria have become resistant to the antibiotic. But in interviews conducted for Wellcome Trust in London, Manchester and Birmingham, researchers encountered an unwelcome frustration, as it noted in a press release: “Researchers found that most people, if they had heard of antibiotic resistance at all, thought that it was their body which becomes resistant to antibiotics, rather than the bacteria that cause drug-resistant infections. This misconception often makes people feel like antibiotic resistance is someone else's problem.” Which it is, until it isn't, regardless of the correct usage of the terms.
“The misconception could help to explain why many people who are prescribed antibiotics fail to complete the course, believing that this will prevent their bodies from becoming resistant,” the press release continued. This strategery (see Ferrell, Will, on misunderestimation) helps to keep the patient infected and exacerbates the real problem. It's an “Appointment in Samarra” situation, with the added wrinkle of not making sense.
Wellcome Trust thus recommends that “doctors, the media and other communicators talk about ‘drug-resistant infections’ or ‘antibiotic-resistant germs’, rather than ‘antibiotic resistance’. This makes it easier to understand that it is bacteria that acquire resistance, not people's bodies.” So whether on a bike ride or on antibiotics, don't stop until you finish the course.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)
Steve Mirsky has been writing the Anti Gravity column since a typical tectonic plate was about 35 inches from its current location. He also hosts the Scientific American podcast Science Talk.