Cyclists wearing helmets at greater risk: car drivers keep their distance from bare-headed cyclists, especially if they're women

Brussels, 13 Sep 2006

New research from the UK suggests that drivers give cyclists without helmets a wider berth compared to their helmeted counterparts. The closer a driver is to the cyclist, the greater chance of a collision. Dr Ian Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University of Bath, cycled around the cities of Salisbury and Bristol, his bicycle fitted with an ultrasonic sensor to record data from overtaking motorists. He wore a helmet only half of the time. He was hit twice - both times while wearing a helmet.

Drivers, at least in the UK, were up to twice as likely to drive too close to Dr Walker when he wore his helmet. Thanks to his ultrasonic device, Dr Walker found that drivers passed 8.5 cm closer to him when he wore the helmet.

The research will be published in the Journal Accident Analysis & Prevention. '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. '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.'

This leaves cyclists in a dilemma, as the helmet protects the head in the event of an accident, but the helmet will increase the chances of having an accident in the first place. '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,' said Dr Walker.

Dr Walker believes that the greater room given to bareheaded cyclists could be down to how drivers perceive cyclists. 'We know from research that many drivers see cyclists as a separate subculture, to which they don't belong,' said Dr Walker.

'This may lead drivers to believe cyclists with helmets are more serious, experienced and predictable than those without,' he said. 'The idea that helmeted cyclists are more experienced and less likely to do something unexpected would explain why drivers leave less space when passing.

'In reality, there is no real reason to believe someone with a helmet is any more experienced than someone without,' he said. He suggests that drivers need to better understand cyclists. More worrying for cyclists was that large vehicles such as buses or trucks passed much closer to cyclists than cars did. The average car passed 1.33 metres away from the bicycle, whereas the average truck was 19 cm closer, and the average bus 23 cm closer.

The effect of appearance was found to be even more important when Dr Walker donned a blonde wig. Drivers gave him an additional 14 cm when they thought he was female, which helps if you are a woman cyclist, but the reasons for this will keep Dr Walker occupied for some time to come. .//CPA For further information, go to Dr Walker's 'overtaking' website at:

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