U.K. Study Finds Wearing a Bike Helmet May be More Dangerous

ian_walker.jpgWe are certainly still going to be wearing our helmets when we ride bikes on New York City streets, but here is an interesting study by Dr. Ian Walker a "traffic psychologist" from Bath University in Great Britain. Walker found that motorists drove more safely and carefully when passing cyclists who were not wearing helmets. These findings are similar to some of the ideas put forward by David Engwicht in his book, "Mental Speed Bumps: The Smarter Way to Tame Traffic," a very interesting read if you haven’t already picked it up.

As reported by the BBC on Monday:

Cyclists who wear protective helmets are more likely to be knocked down by passing vehicles, new research from Bath University suggests.

The study found drivers tend to pass closer when overtaking cyclists wearing helmets than those who are bare-headed.

To carry out the research, Dr Walker used a bike fitted with a computer and an ultrasonic distance sensor to find drivers were twice as likely to get close to the bicycle, at an average of 8.5cm, when he wore a helmet.

The experiment, which recorded 2,500 overtaking motorists in Salisbury and Bristol, was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

"This study suggests wearing a helmet might make a collision more likely in the first place."

Dr Walker thinks the reason drivers give less room to cyclists wearing helmets is because they see them as "Lycra-clad street warriors" and believe they are more predictable than those without.

  • chris

    When I see a cyclist without a helmet my first thought is, “That guy might do something (else) crazy. Watch out.”

  • ddartley

    This is yet another thing (on top of countless other things), that supports a somewhat unconventional idea that I seriously entertain from time to time: cyclists should NOT be pushed to the SIDE of the road by anything–not even bike lanes, nor by their own instinctual fear of taking up space that feels, no matter what laws we might know, to be designed for cars’ primacy.

    “Side-of-road” biking space very powerfully does two things: it marginalizes cyclists and cycling in the usual, figurative sense, and, of course, it *literally* marginalizes cycling and cyclists.

    So guess why I’m back to this position, which I had partially given up: I was, after four years riding in NYC, finally $&*% DOORED yesterday. I am surprised that I never imagined how infuriatingly traumatic it is. Thank #$%@ I didn’t get seriously hurt, and yet I was really, really freaked out all day afterwards.

    Very briefly, here’s what happened: I was riding up 6th Ave. between the left travel lane and parked cars. About ten blocks back, I had been in the very lousy bike lane, but by 52nd St., where I was, the bike lane seemed to be gone. (There was ONE solid white line, which I guessed was a shoulder, or indicated a parking lane, but I also wondered if it was part of a bike lane partially hidden by parked cars.) Anyway, that’s where I was, on the damn SIDE, zipping past all the stuck, stop-and-go cars, and sure enough, passengers of a taxi stuck in the travel lane opened their door inches in front of me. I did not even have time to start to squeeze my brakes, I was that close.

    So, friends, that is why I am back, if only temporarily, to HATING the idea of putting biking space on the sides of roads in most cases. Like many of you seemed in a previous thread to say, we need to change the culture more than the paint on the street. I think cyclists’ right to the ROAD, not their right to a narrow death trap, needs to be asserted, and motorists need to be schooled into respecting the space a cyclist needs. Our squeaking along the sides just makes us less visible, and encourages motorists maneuver in ways that puts us, who are defenseless, at risk. I say if traffic is heavy, and the bike lanes are lousy or non-existent, step over your little fear and TAKE UP A CAR LANE. You’re more visible, and the honking (which is surprisingly rare) hurts a lot less than the car itself.

    Again, to be clear, my dooring did not happen in a bike lane, but in the strip of street where they typically are (and in this case, was, about ten blocks back). And it *could* easily have happened in a typical Manhattan bike lane because they’re so narrow, and so poorly respected by motorists. (No, I know they generally don’t *drive* in bike lanes, but they think nothing of opening their doors into them.)

    Sorry for the length and rambling style, but I’m still pretty @#$% agitated.

  • Sean

    I’ve been of mixed minds on bike lanes, myself.

    Without striping, the space between parked cars and the left-most lane of traffic is a zone of death and dismemberment (ZODD). I’m not sufficiently confident that paint turns the ZODD into a safe zone.

    I don’t quite take up a full lane, though I make passing difficult if I don’t have a nice margin of safety. But I do adhere to the rule that slow traffic goes to the right.

    If I’m going slower, I stay to the right. If I’m going faster, I move out into traffic.

    People open doors, pull out into traffic, make right turns, and otherwise engage in biker-ending behaviors when traffic is slow enough that it’s safe for those activities. (Ever see someone open their car door when traffic is moving along at 25 mph? No, I didn’t think so.) When that happens, I’m a lane or two over zipping between cars.

  • Where there is a bike lane, I ride in it. When there isn’t I ride in the middle of a car lane so that they cannot pass without switching lanes and they can’t turn in front of me without cutting over from another lane. When I come to an obstruction in that lane or a bike lane, I merge into the next lane.

    Basically, if there is no 5 foot bike lane, I am compelled to take a 10 foot car lane.

  • d


    You inadvertantly brought up a good distinction:

    Instead of dividing the street into “the street” and “the bike lane,” we should just say “car lane” and “bike lane.” that equalizes the rights that both drivers and cyclists have to the street overall.

  • ddartley


    The problem is we don’t want to establish that we’re never allowed in the “car lane.” I worry that bike lanes create that impression. Fortunately, I believe NYC laws allow us to enter the car lane when necessary, but 1. in my mind, that’s not even good enough, and 2. watch out, because lots of motorists and even cops don’t know that law.

  • Aren’t bicycles considered vehicles just as cars are in NYC? We certainly are supposed to follow all of the same rules of traffic. To me, this means that we can be in the “car” lanes along with the cars.

  • Through magic I can temporarily make the car lane into my very own bike lane simply by riding in the middle of the lane instead of the side. It’s a thing of beauty…

  • My experience supports Dr Walker’s findings. Females may like to know that I find cycling in skirts & heels also brings me much more consideration than when I cycle in trousers . . .


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