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Bicycle Safety

Weird Science: Do Helmets Attract Cars to Cyclists?

11:21 AM EDT on May 31, 2007

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Following Alex Marshall's essay on bicycle helmets this morning, Scientific American recently reported on a paradox emerging in relation to helmets and traffic accidents. It seems that drivers are a lot more scared of hitting you if you leave your protective gear at home:

Spring is in full swing now, and a number of the straphangers in New York City are getting new tubes and tires and dragging their bikes out of storage. Bicycle riding is the skill you reportedly never forget, but there's a raging debate about whether or not you should forget your helmet when you hop on your two-wheeler.

Last September a plucky psychologist at the University of Bath in England announced the results of a study in which he played both researcher and guinea pig. An avid cyclist, Ian Walker had heard several complaints from fellow riders that wearing a helmet seemed to result in bike riders receiving far less room to maneuver-effectively increasing the chances of an accident. So, Walker attached ultrasonic sensors to his bike and rode around Bath, allowing 2,300 vehicles to overtake him while he was either helmeted or naked-headed. In the process, he was actually contacted by a truck and a bus, both while helmeted-though, miraculously, he did not fall off his bike either time.

His findings, published in the March 2007 issue of Accident Analysis & Prevention, state that when Walker wore a helmet drivers typically drove an average of 3.35 inches closer to his bike than when his noggin wasn't covered. But, if he wore a wig of long, brown locks-appearing to be a woman from behind-he was granted 2.2 inches more room to ride.

Walker, whose much-publicized report may inspire a new generation of bareheaded riders, won't make any specific recommendations to other cyclists, though he notes that when it comes to riding in traffic, motorists are the real problem.

Photo: Sheila Steele/Flickr

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