There’s an old bicycle-safety saw that says “be predictable,” but it’s not a slam dunk. Your first task is to stay alive, and unpredictability can help.
When you’re riding on a bike trail and there’s a wobbly child on a bike ahead of you—or an unleashed puppy or toddler, you’re extra careful passing, because it’s unpredictable.
When drivers aren’t sure what the cyclist was going to do, they were more careful around them. Wouldn’t you be more careful driving around a wobbly rider?
British psychologist, cyclist, and traffic researcher Ian Walker has done the most comprehensive studies to date on how motorists and cyclers interact, and he says motorists give more space to helmetless riders, women, and riders in civilian clothing.
He speculates that unhelmeted riders get more space because drivers figure helmeted riders are more experienced, and less likely to swerve or freak out when they pass close.
Maybe women get more space because they’re seen as more vulnerable, or society will hate you more if you hit one. Maybe it’s the “women driver” stereotype. Maybe guys don’t want to be scolded by a woman for passing close; or maybe female drivers like to see other women out there on bikes, and don’t want to do anything to scare one of their own.
The Safety Swerve & Saliva to the rescue?
As you’re riding down the road and you notice a car coming up about two or three seconds back, wiggle a bit, or swerve just for an instant out toward the car lane. Don’t do it so close to the car that you’ll shock the driver, don’t do it if there are cars coming toward both of you in the other lane, and don’t try this if you aren’t the captain of your bike. Or, if you’re uncomfortable with the Safety Swerve, give yourself a little shake, as though you’re shaking out the stiffness and are totally unaware that you’re in traffic. Or spit to the left, but not at a car. You may not be the spittin’ type, but understand the spirit of this notion, and tailor it to your own situation. Spitting too late and too high at a car full of thugs is not “tailoring” it properly.
As for the civilian clothes: It must be that riders in civilian clothing are, like unhelmeted riders, regarded as less serious and less predictable. Maybe drivers identify more with people who wear the same kinds of clothing they do, and dislike those who don’t. Xenophobia kept our ancestors from making friends with the predatory animals and unfriendly tribes. Just because a guy’s behind the wheel of a car doesn’t mean he’s completely free of those ancient tendencies.
Helmet note that is not anti-helmet, but could be easily twisted to seem that way
Helmets and bike safety are always part of the same discussion, as they should be. Helmets are one of the more complicated, divisive topics in bikedom, on par with health care and the war. On the wear-your-helmet side, there’s no denying that styrofoam between head and pavement helps in a hit, and that is one powerful argument.
But it is not the only argument in town. Statistics tell us that whenever helmet use is mandated, bicycle use plummets, and when there are fewer riders, there’s less rider awareness from drivers. And then there’s the controversial notion of risk-compensation: The tendency for a person to take more risks when using safety equipment.
If you wear a helmet, wear it level and correctly, and as much as you can, pretend that you’re not wearing it at all.