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Should cyclists wear a wig?

The number of people who die in Amsterdam traffic accidents has risen slightly during the past two years. The municipality therefore intends to tighten traffic rules, het Parool reports. Should it consider making wigs mandatory for male cyclists?

Earlier this week, the Guardian published an analysis of bicycle safety habits by Stuart Jeffries. In Anglophone countries, it is common for cyclists to wear a helmet. “But if you go to some of the cities where cycling has a prouder history than in Britain - cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Berlin or Shanghai - you will find very few cycle helmets”.

In Paris, where cycling has exploded after the introduction of the Vélib rental bicycles, cyclists told Jeffries: ‘c’est relou de porter un casque’ (it’s boring to wear a helmet). But from the autumn, they will be forced to wear fluorescent jackets.

Cyclists in Amsterdam do not really need a helmet, argues Jeffries, because cycling is safer here, partly because of bicycle-friendly regulations, and partly because the sheer number of bicycles forces motorists to behave.

Whether helmets would make cycling any safer is a controversial matter. Researchers suggest that cyclists take more risks when wearing a helmet, thus making cycling actually more dangerous. Motorists apparently change their behaviour as well when cyclists wear a helmet.

When cars hit cyclists while overtaking them, nasty accidents can result. Jeffries quotes an already classic study by travel psychologist Ian Walker, who found that cars tend to pass cyclists closer when they are wearing a helmet. Cyclists without helmets are giving on average 8.5 cm more space.

Walker thinks that motorists assume helmet-wearing cyclists to be more experienced, and therefore less likely to wobble. But there may be more.

In the early 1980s, Amsterdam riot police found that they evoke less aggression when they take off their helmets, so as to be more recognisable as human beings. The same may apply to cyclists.

Walker also did an experiment with ‘the (male) experimenter wearing a feminine wig, in order that he appeared to be a woman to drivers appearing from behind’. Now, cars gave him even more space. Motorists seem to assume that women cyclists tend to be less experienced, Walker suspects.

The Dutch Traffic Safety Association is against making bicycle helmets mandatory. It fears that people would stop riding their bicycles and take the car instead, resulting in even more accidents.

Paris cyclists have another problem with helmets: they look ridiculous. For this problem, Jeffries offers a solution: hats designed to hide a helmet.

The Guardian. Image: Cycle headdress (photo courtesy Hoai–oanh Vu).

16 August 2008 |