The Danger of Bike Helmets

by F.

According to a story in The Times, a “traffic psychologist” apparently believes that

Cyclists who wear helmets are more likely to be knocked off their bicycles than those who do not….

Motorists give helmeted cyclists less leeway than bare-headed riders because they assume that they are more proficient. They give a wider berth to those they think do not look like “proper” cyclists, including women, than to kitted-out “lycra-clad warriors”.

Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist, was hit by a bus and a truck while recording 2,500 overtaking manoeuvres. On both occasions he was wearing a helmet.

During his research he measured the exact distance of passing traffic using a computer and sensor fitted to his bicycle.Half the time Dr Walker, of the University of Bath, was bare-headed. For the other half he wore a helmet and has the bruises to prove it.

He even wore a wig on some of his trips to see if drivers gave him more room if they thought he was a woman. They did.

He was unsure whether the protection of a helmet justified the higher risk of having a collision. “We know helmets are useful in low-speed falls, and so are definitely good for children.”

On average, drivers steered an extra 3.3 in away from those without helmets to those wearing the safety hats. Motorists were twice as likely to pass “very close” to the cyclist if he was wearing a helmet.

He said: “When drivers overtake a cyclist, the margin for error they leave is affected by the cyclist’s appearance. Many see cyclists as a separate subculture.

The real take-away here is not that one shouldn’t wear a helmet. It’s that the way drivers conceptualize you influences their behavior. If they see you as a machine, they will treat you as one. If they see you as competent, they’ll act accordingly, and cut you less slack.

One way to counteract this—possibly—is to look drivers in the eye. Even if I have sunglasses on, I notice that if I look at drivers and make eye contact, something seems to register and they give me more room and drive more slowly. They seem to understand that it’s a human being out there that they are driving next to, and they don’t want to smash into it—if for no other reason than it will cause a mess. I mean, it would be pretty horrifying to hit someone on a bike. And in a lawsuit, when it’s Car v. Bike, Car doesn’t look so good.