There have been many comments in our bicycle-related articles about safety and proper riding styles. Any time we post a photo of a ride sans helmet, some readers inevitably let us hear about it. They feel that presenting an unhelmeted rider sets a bad precedent.
Generally, I would agree. If I’m going to be in an accident, I would much rather be wearing a helmet when it occurs. I wear a helmet for 99% of my riding. One potential downside of helmets – they further marginalize cyclists on the road. It’s as if we’re tacitly agreeing that riding a bike is inherently dangerous, like we’re entering a construction zone. Driving a car’s quite a dangerous undertaking and most drivers aren’t wearing flame-proof suits and full headgear.
Dr Ian Walker, a British traffic psychologist from the University of Bath, proved another drawback – drivers will give less room to a cyclist wearing a helmet.
Walker rigged his bicycle with a computer and an ultrasonic distance sensor. He recorded data from over 2,500 passing vehicles and alternated between riding with and without a helmet. During the study he was struck twice, by a bus and a truck. Both times he was sporting his helmet.
The gap that drivers gave Walker when they passed shrank an average of 8.5 cm (3 1/3 inches) when he wore a helmet.
From the Study’s Press Release:
“This study shows that when drivers overtake a cyclist, the margin for error they leave is affected by the cyclist’s appearance,” said Dr Walker, from the University’s Department of Psychology.
“By leaving the cyclist less room, drivers reduce the safety margin that cyclists need to deal with obstacles in the road, such as drain covers and potholes, as well as the margin for error in their own judgements.
“We know helmets are useful in low-speed falls, and so definitely good for children, but whether they offer any real protection to somebody struck by a car is very controversial.
“Either way, this study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place.”
As for me, I’ve been in enough bike crashes, mostly in races, to know from personal experience that helmets protect my noggin. But Walker’s study is a fascinating look into human psychology and our own assessments of what’s “safe.”
Walker surmises that motorists view cyclists with helmets as more experienced and predictable, and perhaps better protected as well. Subconsciously, they make a decision that these riders require less room.
When Walker donned a long wig to see how gender affected the results, motorists gave an extra 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) of room! Apparently we should all forgo lycra for a skirt, grow out our hair, and revel in the extra asphalt.
For a look at a cyclist’s paradise, where helmets are nowhere to be seen, See also: Bikes Rule in Amsterdam.