A fascinating press release is starting to gain attention.
Researcher Ian Walker equipped his bike with a precise sensor that measured exactly how much room British drivers gave him when they passed. After tracking thousands of motorists, he was able to make an astonishing claim: when he was wearing a helmet, drivers gave him significantly less room on the road — over 8 centimeters less.
He suspects the reason is that drivers make judgements about the competence of a cyclist based on whether or not he is wearing a helmet. Indeed, Walker was struck by cars twice during the experiment — both times he was wearing a helmet.
In a separate condition, Walker rode the bike wearing a wig so drivers approaching from behind thought he was a woman. Now, he found, drivers gave significantly more room.
So, is it actually safer to ride without a helmet? It’s still difficult to say: helmets would still be safer for accidents that didn’t involve cars, and there may be cultural factors involved as well. Most people who’ve lived in both Britain and the U.S. claim few British riders wear helmets. So British drivers may be making an assumption that U.S. drivers, at least, don’t make. I’d like to see the study replicated in the U.S. to see if the phenomenon is cross-cultural.