BBC: Wearing bike helmets ‘more dangerous’

This headline made me read the article.  How in the world could wearing a helmet be ‘more dangerous’?

The answer was a little surprising:    

Cyclists who wear protective helmets are more likely to be knocked down by passing vehicles, new research from Bath University suggests. 

The study found drivers tend to pass closer when overtaking cyclists wearing helmets than those who are bare-headed.

Aah, so it’s a risk from drivers that increases.

Dr Walker, a traffic psychologist from the University’s Department of Psychology, said: “This study shows that when drivers overtake a cyclist, the margin for error they leave is affected by the cyclist’s appearance.

“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.

Read the article to see how they gathered their data, it’s interesting.

And, as both a driver and a cyclist I think the underlying premise is correct: less space is given to bike riders wearing helmets.  As a driver I think of a helmet cyclist as a predictable actor, there to ride, usually quickly and in as straight a line as possible.  I (now) realize I give a wider berth to the more casual rider.

And I can attest cars don’t mind getting close to me while riding, though I never ride without a helmet, so can’t say about whether I get more or less space with / without.

Unusually for me, I’ll let the BBC have the last word:

However, a spokesman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents insisted: “We wouldn’t recommend that people stop wearing helmets because of this research. Helmets have been shown to reduce the likelihood of head and brain injuries in a crash.

“[The research] highlights a gain in vulnerability of cyclists on our roads and drivers of all types need to take more care when around them.”


  1. The original research, years ago, showed that bicycle riders with helmets had substantially lower rates of head injuries. The conclusion, of course, was that helmets prevented head injuries.

    Then, some time later, a group of doctors pointed out that bicycle riders with helmets also had substantially lower rates of broken arms and soft internal injuries. The re-examined conclusion was that bicycle riders who voluntarily wore helmets tended to be safer riders and take fewer risks. It was the type of rider, not the helmet, that reduced the injuries.

    Several years ago municipalities started requiring children to wear helmets, in order to reduce injuries. The follow up research showed the unexpected: Injuries actually increased. Why? Because children who were forced to wear helmets now thought they were safer, and took more risks.

    Amazing how complicated our world is. Nothing is simple.

  2. i see, what we need is invisible helmets. This would maybe fix everything?

  3. Goatwhacker says:

    Having more than once seen patients with broken helmets but intact heads, I’ll keep wearing mine.

  4. I frequently ride on the Oregon coast. I swear log trucks have a pact of some sort: they, among all drivers — big rigs included — are the least likely to give an inch when passing me. Scary as hell, helmet or no.

  5. Bikers could also do themselves a favor if they would pay attention to traffic laws. It is a rare thing to see a road biker stop, or even slow down, at a stop sign. I’ve almost hit a couple who just blasted through an intersection without even looking at the stop sign.

  6. I guess the safest thing to do is to wear a helmet but also look like you don’t know what you’re doing. That’s easy for me.

  7. But here’s what wrong: the research (apparently) only says that motor vehicles get closer to helmeted cyclers. There is then the inference that, because a vehicle is closer to a helmeted cyclist, the cyclist is more likely to be knocked down, and the further implied inference that, if they are more likely to be knocked down, they are more likely to be injured.

    And they spike these errors with the anecdotal information that one of the researchers was knocked down twice (ooooh, twice!) while helmeted.

    Helmeted or not, the likelihood of a cyclist being injured relates mainly to the speed of the striking vehicle and the nature of the impact (and its environment). A high speed collision with a cyclist straight into the cyclist has a good chance of killing the cyclist, helmeted or not. Helmets save you from what otherwise might have been a minor injury except for that crack on the head against the pavement or guardrail.

  8. Whoa! Blaming cyclists, or saying that helmets prevent injuries as a blanket statement are both the wrong answer.

    There needs to be comprehensive education of all users of the highways in America (at least) that cyclists share the road. This means some cyclists need to clean up their act, and a lot of drivers need to clean up their act.

    As for helmets preventing injuries, helmets prevent certain types of injuries. I have yet to see a bicycle helmet that prevents knocked out teeth, broken arms, or road rash. Helmets do nothing to stop people from riding beyond their experience and equipment. But, cycling is not inherently safe. If people stop looking at bicycles as innocuous toys suitable for allowing children to run helter-skelter on with no supervision, things may change, as well.

    Bicycles are not all toys.

  9. I got a kick out of the fact that the cars would give more room to women cyclists:

    To test another theory, Dr Walker donned a long wig to see whether there was any difference in passing distance when drivers thought they were overtaking what appeared to be a female cyclist.

    Whilst wearing the wig, drivers gave him an average of 14 centimetres (5.5 inches) more space when passing.

    Let the “woman driver” jokes commence.

    I took a defensive driving motorcycle course. The best tip I got out of it that I apply to driving and cycling is “assume everyone else doesn’t see you”.