Hazards of Helmets


Bath University psychologist Ian Walker finds that drivers give him more room when he rides a bike bareheaded than when he wears a helmet. He gets even more space when he wears a long-haired wig. "In future research," the BBC reports, "Dr Walker hopes to discover whether this was because female riders are seen as less predictable than male riders or because women are not seen riding bicycles as often as men on the UK's roads." I assume that's a nice way of saying that drivers assume women don't know how to ride a bike. A somewhat more charitable explanation is that drivers are more protective of women, who are thought to be less capable than men of withstanding the occasional collision with a car or truck. Walker was hit twice, by a truck and a bus, during his research, both times while wearing a helmet. He did not test drivers' reactions to a bicyclist wearing a white handkerchief with a knot tied in each corner.

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  1. He did not test drivers’ reactions to a bicyclist wearing a white handkerchief with a knot tied in each corner.

    I agree wif everyfing that Mr. Walker said!

  2. I put 8k miles a year on a bike and started wearing a Bell helmet when they first came out in 1975, and the first obvious change was drivers were less likely to pull out in front of you, now assuming that you might be going pretty fast compared to what they expect from bicycles. Helmets were extremely rare then. (I still use the same helmet, by the way. Its chief function is for shelter from the sun. Collisionwise, probably it’s of no use. Wear a baseball cap under it for additional shade and rain deflection.)

  3. For what it’s worth, I started wearing a helmet after I suddenly found myself lying in a hospital bed with road rash across my face and various limbs, with no recollection of the past three days. I was hit by a decorative brick gateway around a neighbor’s driveway. Apparently my judgement on a bike is as dangerous as most cars, so I’ve stuck with the helmet ever since.

  4. If motorists are less careful around cyclists with helmets, that’s an argument for educating motorists, not one for abandoning helmets. Educating motorists about cycling is a damn good idea, anyway…

  5. Peachy-I wish I could believe the problem is a lack of education, but I’m more inclined to just think that they’re assholes.

  6. that’s an argument for educating motorists

    What you want is to be the only bicycle on the road. Motorists are very courteous, some wave, if you’re the first bicyclist they’ve seen that day. They start getting hostile around the third.

    So I discourage bicycling as much as I can, and I suggest you do likewise.

    Keep the roads free for me!

    (Bicyclists in groups are very bad news.)

  7. Yet another data point supporting the late Aaron Wildavsky’s work that yielded this rule: as safety equipment is added to the stuff we use, we adjust our behaviors so that our estimated risk-taking remains about the same. By 2525 we’ll all be rolling around like Bart Simpsom as Bubble Boy, taunting mountain lions and bungee-jumping without the cords.


  8. It always amuses me when bicyclists complain about driver courtesy, when it’s been my experience that drivers are orders of magnitude more courteous to bicyclists than bicyclists are to joggers.

  9. Well, you’re both right – some motorists are assholes, and some are very courteous… my personal experience is that truckers are actually some of the nicest. And certainly the idiocy of many urban cyclists (riding through stop-signs, going the wrong way down one-way streets, no helmets, etc) doesn’t help the tribe when it comes to relations with motorists. Plenty of ignorance and impolitness to go around, I fear…

  10. “I never wear a helmet unless I have something to put in it.”

  11. And certainly the idiocy of many urban cyclists (riding through stop-signs, going the wrong way down one-way streets, no helmets, etc) doesn’t help the tribe when it comes to relations with motorists.

    A surprisingly large percentage of bicyclists are control freaks. That’s why I avoid them.

    Motorists, I get along with just fine.

    Cars are nature’s way of keeping your bicycle route clear of debris and other bicyclists.

  12. Ron… collionwise, helmets are probably of no use? I’ve ridden a good number of miles on a bike… I’ve crashed a couple times… amusing stories, really. But one time the helmet did save me from what would have certainly been a serious head injury… I actually cracked the helmet, but my head ended up just fine.

    As for courtesy… well, I think that cars are dangerous not when the drivers are uncourteous, but when they’re not paying attention. I narrowly avoided crashes plenty of times by dodging cars making erratic moves because they didn’t notice me. But cyclists do annoy me when I’m driving and they do something stupid like… two or three cyclists riding abreast in a too-narrow bike lane… or riding erratically and just assuming I’ll give them lots and lots of space and brake hard if they cut me off… or riding at night without any lights.

  13. The best was the time this bicyclist just assumed that I would whip into the left lane to avoid stopping behind a car that abruptly pulled halfway into the parking lane to make a right turn. Guess what? I had no time to check the left lane so I stopped instead. Then looked into my rearview mirror and saw a cyclist pedaling furiously into my rear bumper, trying to follow me around the car ahead. He was really mad. Picked up his bike and then threw it on the ground because the front wheel was bent. Ah well. He hit me, not the other way around. I just drove off.

  14. I don’t understand what the problem is with going through most stop signs. In some cities, like mine, just about every minor intersection has a stop sign. As a cyclist, why do I need to stop ten times every mile when nobody is going the other way? I probably go through these 95% of the time without seeing any traffic.

    In cases where a car is waiting or approaching the intersection, I’ll stop. Then, of course, I’ll be starting from a dead stop, so I take a long time to start and get through the intersection, so I’ll have cars pull into the intersection, angry that I’m going too slow.

  15. As a New Yorker who neither drives nor bikes, I find motorists and bicyclists equally obnoxious. A pox on them all!

  16. Crashed and broke my arm two weeks ago. Without my helmet I’d have been brains on the pavement.

  17. I have to say that out here in God’s country we are plagued by bike riders from the city who seem to be ignorant of many things about reality. For instance, it is never a good idea to ride two or three abreast on a winding country road with no paved shoulder where the speed limit is 55. I always wonder what these guys are thinking. Is it arrogance? Stupidity? Do they think we’re going to swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid killing them?

    And BTW, Dude, that is a really stupid looking hat. Why are bike helmets so idiotic looking?

  18. Van,

    Nice of you to stop for moment to ensure the cyclist that collided with your car was OK. Considering he hit you hard enough to destroy his front wheel, you must have been sure that he was totally uninjured right? basically, you’re ADMITING to leaving the scene of an accident, with out even so much as ensuring the other, obviously more vulnerable party was uninjured?

    Your caviler attitude towards the safety and welfare of those around you is beyond REASON. I am embarrassed for you.

  19. Ammonium:

    I used to ride a bike a lot in my younger days. When I was in college I commuted to my summer jobs by bike, and sometimes cheated on STOP signs to save time and effort. One of the routes I took was hilly, while the other was monstrously hilly. I developed a technique whereby I stood up on the peddles while coasting downhill to the STOP line, so I could see over or through summer shrubbery whether or not there was oncoming traffic. If I wasn’t sure the way was clear, I’d stop. If I was very sure it was clear, I’d keep blasting. This wasn’t in a city, but I rode through a couple of small-town business districts on my way to work, and traffic could get very tight on the old two-lane main streets, especially since the area was a popular seaside vacation spot. I once lost a layer of skin off my elbow when a gravel truck grazed me as I rode as far to the right as I could without hitting the parked cars. I used a mirror. I had a friggin’ horn, for cryin’ out loud. I even signalled turns when I was in traffic, and still some drivers would act like you didn’t belong on the road. But I see so many bike riders in the city act like they have an “exempt from all traffic rules” card in their pockets, I’m surprised they aren’t all dead. They blow through STOP signs in heavily travelled areas. They take the right of way when they don’t have it. [Old New York Cabbie wisdom: The right of way is that thing that, if the other guy don’t give it to ya, ya don’t got it.] They ride against traffic to save a block or two of extra pedalling. I thought one reason one rode was for the exercise. Why avoid the extra effort? They ride at night without lights and/or reflectors. In my urban neighborhood, where the city has put in wheelchair access cutouts on almost all the curbs, adult riders take to the sidewalks when they feel like it, then dart into the road when they don’t. Either you are on a vehicle that belongs on the road, or you are on a kids’ toy that should stay out of traffic. Make up your blinkin’ mind. SUV on the road is to Bike in traffic as Bike on the sidewalk is to Pedestrian. Act accordingly.

    Now, don’t get me started on the old lady who turned her Buick into the driveway apron I was crossing on a bike, one day years ago. Or on the skateboarders. At least the cyclists usually have brakes. 🙂


  20. I’m assuming by the comments above that wearing a helmet while riding a bicycle is no longer considered dorky? Are joggers far behind this trend? What about hot dog vendors? In twenty years will we look back in astonishment at how few Americans were wearing helmets back in the Roaring ’00s?

  21. Now here is a topic where I have expertise as well as opinion!

    The safety compensation issue is paramount. We already know that cyclists treat that styrofoam head bucket as a magic talisman that will protect from all evil. With helmet usage up, we would expect serious head injuries to decline, but instead that have increased, leading to the conclusion that cyclists have overestimated the value of the helmet. Helmet standards are aimed at a child falling over event, not the elite cyclist clad in “pickle-pants” cruising at over 20 mph.

    But this study hints at something deeper: motorists are also overestimating the value of the helmet, and over-compensating the risk adjustment. So while a helmet is probably better than nothing for those few times one uses his skin to slow down forward progress, if it lures cars closer it may be a net detriment.

    Funny, I only wear a helmet when there are no cars around.

  22. On stop signs… I ride through them often and don’t feel bad about it. Sure, if there’s a car ahead of me, I’ll stop and wait for it… but if there’re no cars, it’s just a hassle to stop. And generally, if I arrive at the same time as a crossing car, I’ll go through first, only to be polite, because cars seem to assume I’ll go through and tend to wait excessively long, not wanting to hit the cyclist.

    And yeah, if a cyclist hits your car, even if it’s his fault, you should still wait long enough to make sure he’s ok.

    As for helmets on cyclists vs. joggers… well, most joggers don’t hit 20 or 30 or 40 mph, and when you fall down off your feet, the human body usually naturally protects the head quite well… not so true when you crash on a bike. Also, on foot, you’re much better at quickly stopping or maneuvering around erratic vehicles. Or, I shouldn’t take jokes so seriously.

  23. No bicyclist I have ever seen has stopped for a stop sign or red light, even if I’m trying to turn right and I’m ahead of them. And they ask *me* to share the road. This includes all the ones trying to run me down and expecting me to get out of the way when I’m a pedestrian on the sidewalk. So either get out in the street and don’t be an asshole about traffic signs and signals, or stay on the sidewalk and remember that it’s not built for you. Or better yet, get on your bike path and stay there, and don’t whine to me about how it isn’t a straight shot between your home and work.

    Share the road. I’ve got their road right here.

  24. Yes, I agree that there are plenty of assholes on both sides to make the “who is worst” argument moot.

    But let me address recumbent bicyclists. Jesus fucking christ, is it something about the design that attracts douchebags? Every time I see one of these smug pricks tooling along (looking like a total retard, by the way), they are almost always pushing their way into car traffic, as if they are daring people to hit them.

    I’m not 100% on the rules of the road, but even if it’s legal for a bicyclist to push in front of a much-faster moving car, why the fuck would they? They could be 100% complying with the law, and end up dead. Asshole or not, wrong or not, the guy in the car is going to walk away from a collision… every time.

  25. I have ridden bikes in both the US and Germany. IN Germany, motorists are taught that bikes have the same rights and responsibilities of bike riders, in the US bike riding is barely addressed. I feel pretty safe riding in Germany, but it really is the motorist who is not paying attention that is the biggest threat. They don’t expect you, they don’t look for you, they don’t see you, and you end up the worse for it. Fortunately, Germany has a lot of bike paths and the US is improving. It’s all worth it when the motorist who edged me over is the same guy stuck at a light, but I am whipping past on the bike path and home before he is. Bikers getto park closer to the building, too.

  26. Talk about generalizing about wholesale categories of people — gee, you might think Reasonoids would be above that? Obviously there are bad motorists and bad cyclists, but one should not treat every member of the group based on a negative impression culled from the worst of the lot. Are you going to drive less courteously to cyclist A because cyclist B nearly struck you on the sidewalk a few years back?

    As far as helmets go, I’m more concerned with what happens if I get hit than how much room cars give me; it doesn’t bother me if they give me a little less room because they see I’m wearing a helmet (or that I’m a guy). The important thing is that they SEE me. I’m most worried about the ones who don’t see me at all, and for those I want my helmet.

    A few weeks ago I witnessed a low-speed collision between car and bike, and although the cyclist was able to walk it off, it struck me how FAST he was on the ground when he didn’t see it coming. The driver exclaimed, “I didn’t see you!”

  27. I still use the same helmet, by the way. Its chief function is for shelter from the sun. Collisionwise, probably it’s of no use.

    Thank goodness! Feel free to post a list of your main biking routes.

  28. The issue of running stop lights and stop signs is usually misunderstood by motorists. When cycling I obey the laws… of physics. That means ignoring the statutes. When something goes wrong between car and cyclist, it goes disproportionately wrong for the cyclist. Nearly all cycling-car accidents occur at intersections. So I avoid the car at the intersection. That may mean running a red light, or running a stop sign. A cyclist need not stop, as he can stop that 20 lb bicycle if need be, in very little space. The motorist has less flexibility with a 3,000 lb vehicle. Its Newtons laws of inertial. Statutes written for big heavy vehicles make little sense for bicycles, and obeying them put cyclists at greater risk for injury.

    So next time you see a cyclist ignore the statute, first ask whether it made sense under the law – Newton’s law – before getting angry.

  29. The problem with depending on a cyclist’s ability to stop in a shorter space than a car is that one doesn’t always have optimum conditions for that maneuver. Ever try to stop short and hit an oily spot on the road surface, a pothole, loose gravel, or sand left over from winter snow-fighting? You can be lucky to get away with road rash. Having a brake cable fail when it is most needed sucks, too.

    The weirdest looks I ever got from motorists in my cycling days were when I crossed lanes (while signalling) to get in the leftmost one, so I could make a left turn. Waiting patiently for the light controlling my lane to turn from red to green, some of the drivers seemed to think that a Martian had descended amongst them.

    On the libertarian front, our local government, while still requiring bicycles ridden on roads to be licensed, have stopped issuing them plates. They decided that a sticker on the frame is enough, as those unwilling to license their bikes were just stealing plates from those who complied with the previous regulation.

    (Oughta get the old bike repaired and work off a few stone, anyway.)

  30. “A cyclist need not stop, as he can stop that 20 lb bicycle if need be, in very little space. The motorist has less flexibility with a 3,000 lb vehicle. Its Newtons laws of inertial.”

    Actually, if the velocities and coefficients of friction are equal, the mass of breaking vehicles shouldn’t matter. The frictional force increases linearly with increasing mass since it is the product of the normal force and the coefficient of friction. The impluse (F*t) necessary to stop the object is equal to its momentum, which is directly proportional to the mass, so the time it takes to stop is directly proportional to the product of the velocity and coefficient of friction. Of course, the coefficent of friction depends on the characteristics of the interface between the two surfaces and not in a clear and predictable way either.

  31. I’ve actually found that I’m much safer when cycling if I assertively take up more room on the road than if I try to keep as far over as possible to let people past. It seems better not to give car drivers the illusory feeling that there’s enough room to squeeze past me. (I’ll add that this is on multi-lane American streets, where there is plenty of room for them to overtake – IF they move across to the next lane)

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