In previous posts, I examined how much space cars give bikes.
I came across a couple of links which made me go back to the issue.
The first is a study by Dr Walker, whose research was published in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention [link]
Using an electronic measuring device, he found that when wearing a helmet, cars gave cyclists 8cm (3.1 inches). less space.
Interestingly, he found that the worst offenders were lorries and buses (buses got an extra 23cm closer. Something I can easily believe!). He also found that cars were more likely to give women extra room. (an extra 14cm)
His theory, is that car drivers make judgements about cyclists, if they look experienced then they give them less room. However, if the cyclist is not wearing a helmet the car driver worries that the cyclist is less experienced and more likely to behave unpredictably. Therefore, they give cyclists a wider berth.
I’m sure drivers don’t make a conscious decision like -”That person is wearing a helmet, so let’s pass close by.” But, when I’m driving I would take more care and pass wider – if I thought the cyclist was young / inexperienced. The report certainly seems to be plausible from a psychological perspective.
It is only one report, but I have heard alot of anecdotal evidence to back this up. Quite a few people say, that wearing certain clothes and no helmet, encourages cars to give them more room. For example, this newspaper report in Cambridge about wearing purple charity T Shirts
It gives cyclists a dilemma, a helmet may help for low speed crashes, but, if wearing a helmet encourages drivers to pass closer by, the small benefit may be negated.
There are other issues at stake, like could wearing a helmet give a cyclist a false sense of security and encourage more reckless cycling?
When racing, or doing long training rides, I always wear a helmet, it is not because my mother tells me to; but, it seems the right thing to do. But, on short commutes into town, a helmet feels like an inconvenience.
A friend from Cyclox, said after reading a similar report, he tried commuting without wearing a helmet. He made two observations. Firstly, he felt more vulnerable because he was so used to wearing a helmet. Secondly, he did feel he got more space from cars.