By Ryan McGreal
Published September 12, 2006
I'lve always assumed that while bicycle helmets don'lt provide an actual cone of invincibility, they at the very least do more good than harm.
Now a study from the UK has thrown that assumption into question:
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.
The researcher, Psychologist Dr. Ian Walker, "used a bike fitted with a computer and an ultrasonic distance sensor to find drivers were twice as likely to get close to the bicycle, at an average of 8.5cm, when he wore a helmet."
Dr. Walker explained:
This study shows that when drivers overtake a cyclist, the margin for error they leave is affected by the cyclist'ls 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.
He is careful to note that the study applies mainly to cyclists who use their bikes for commuting. For recreational cyclists and especially for children, wearing a helmet is unquestionably safer than not wearing one.
With children, especially, helmets offer the best protection against low speed falls and should always be worn. Ontario provincial law requires children under 18 to wear a helmet when cycling.
For bicycle commuters, however, Dr. Walker said, "whether [helmets] offer any real protection to somebody struck by a car is very controversial."
Even if helmets do offer protection, the simple act of wearing a helmet increases the likelihood of being hit by a car. It remains to be seen whether the increased risk of being hit is enough to offset the increased protection from head injury if a cyclist is hit.