Blond wigs keep you safe: an interview with Dr. Ian Walker

A study was released a couple years ago by Dr. Ian Walker of the UK suggesting that drivers give more room to cyclists who are not wearing helmets and/or are female. Is this truly the case?

This morning my co-author, Carlton Reid, and I did an interview with the good doctor to find out more about his study and also get talk more on other things he has learned while studying traffic patterns and how biking to work effects your health.   You can download it here…

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0 thoughts on “Blond wigs keep you safe: an interview with Dr. Ian Walker”

  1. MikeOnBike says:

    The wig/helmet study has some issues:

  2. Ghost Rider says:

    This “study” has been talked about at length on a variety of bicycle-friendly sites (including this one, if I recall). That “study” was not particularly rigorous from a scientific standpoint and thus the results are really called into question.

    I’d like to see a REAL scientific analysis of this perceptual phenomenon…until then, I think I’ll leave the wig and skirt at home!

  3. Paul in Minneapolis says:

    When I lived iin N.W. Georgia there was a young attractive girl, maybe 17. Next to me, she was the next most utility bicyclest in that erea. I would often see motorist buzz her no different than the way they did me. She soon relized that if I were around there would be loud screaming toward the motorist…

    There are many who don’t care about anything other than making them selves feel bigger, and a female is an easy target.

    I do beleive that some will give a female a little more respect, but I would question why.

  4. Stuart M. says:

    I read about this study in a small British magazine called A to B which is dedicated to bicycling issues. Dr. Walker’s study used many tools like radar guns to determine passing distances that cars afforded bicyclists. He did notice that if he disguised himself like a woman, the British car drivers gave him noticeably more space as they passed. He also noted that so-called professional drivers that drove delivery trucks, utility vans, big trucks and buses gave bicyclists the least amount of space when passing. Are these studies applicable to America? I knew a woman who had her left handlebar grabbed by someone in a car’s passenger seat. I am trying to imagine the conversation in that car, “Hey, drive real close to this woman so I can knock her off that bike!” “Oh, ok!” Only in America.

  5. Siouxgeonz says:

    Using many tools, of course, does not make a study scientific.

    I’d want to know for sure that there weren’t shifts in his behavior when he was dressed differently (such as lane position).

  6. Quinn says:

    I still say the most affective thing is to make you bike appear as wide as possible.

  7. Teresa says:

    I’ve yet to see a helmet study that “scientifically” proves anything. The only helmet study that I’ve seen is mandatory helmet laws reduce bike ridership.

    I base all my judgements on anecdotes that start out like “I went out on a bike ride and…. crash….. would have been dead if I didn’t wear a helmet.” I never hear these stories from people who actually died while hearing a helmet. So I guess helmets are effective.

  8. Jewell says:

    Ha! I wouldn’t believe this “study” for a second. Out of all my bicycling friends (sadly mostly guys) I seem to receive the most road rage. I really wonder if it’s being a women that increases my chances of getting honked at and ill treated. Being as petite as I am I must be a easy target. Oh, and don’t forget about the soccer mom (and future soccer mom) with road rage, they have no mercy!.

  9. Jack in NC says:

    Thanks for the podcasts. While the discussion of motorists’ perceptions and stereotypes was interesting, the topic of the intentional wobble was disappointing. Certainly you can’t be advocating that cyclists “play dumb” in order to get some sympathy space from motorists.

    While an intentional wobble may garner a little immediate space based on motorists’ perception and stereotypes, it will likely also perpetuate the stereotype many motorists hold that cyclists don’t belong on the road. And, honestly, as a cycling advocate, I’d agree that the kind of cyclists (or any road user) who can’t maintain control of their vehicles while sharing the road with motorists, don’t belong there.

    Like all road users, cyclists should travel a straight line (within the context of the road), maintain a high level of visibility, obey all traffic laws and behave predictably. Those actions will serve individual cyclists and the cycling community far better than feigning poor skills.

    I hope your book doesn’t include any mention of playing dumb, other than to describe why its such a poor idea. And I equally hope you’ll use your podcasts to speak a little more intelligently and with a longer-term perspective on this topic. The credibility of your book will benefit from it.


  10. So let’s say that I belong to an organization that is big on seperated cycle paths, and that I am an experienced vehicular cyclist.

    To promote my agenda of getting bikes off the street, I use my knowledge of safe riding skills to my advantage.

    I create a video that shows me riding a bike while wearing a helmet and hugging the curb and riding as close to parked cars as I can and cars are buzzing me within inches.

    Then in another scene, I am wearing a gorilla suit and practicing vehicular cycling and proper lane positioning so that cars need to change lanes to go around me, thus giving me more room.

    My study shows that motorists give more clearance for gorillas than they do for helmet-wearing riders.

  11. Coelecanth says:

    I saw a critique of that study that showed that it was deliberately misleading. The difference (if I remember correctly) between the average passing distance between helmeted and non-helmeted riders was 3.5 inches closer. But he cut off the bottom part of the graph, a common way to massage data to show the conclusion you want it to. The total average passing distance was something like 4 feet. Are you any safer if someone passes you at 4 feet than 3 feet 9 inches, no not really.

  12. Michael Toohey says:

    While I’ve never tried the on purpose wobble, I can give totally unscientific anecdotal evidence that when out riding with my wife and daughter in regular clothes, more motorists give us more room than when I’m out by myself all spandexed up for a “serious” ride.
    Helmets are a moot point, they are compulsory here in NZ. I worked in the bike trade when the law came out and can attest that bike commuting dropped of when it did (I worked downtown in a city where bike commuting was so traditional it was sometimes called “the Amsterdam of the Southern Hemisphere”). Other factors, including a huge drop in motor vehicle prices were also in play though.
    But, to the point, I take some issue with the argument that competent cyclists don’t wobble. In driver training here, prospective licensees are warned to give cyclists plenty of room since they may swerve or be knocked off line for a reason the motorist can’t see – potholes, glass and wind gusts (a serious factor in a maritime climate, I’ve been blown across a lane on a motorcycle). I agree that cyclists should try to maintain a straight line, but I disagree that motorists should expect them to do so. I believe sincerely that the world has become a more dangerous place because motorists expect the other road users to make a series of concessions (wearing hi-viz vests for example) so that they can drive faster and with less duty of care. One thing for sure, that child, dog, livestock or boulder that suddenly appears in the road ahead of us as we’re bowling along at 70 miles per hour won’t be wearing a hi-viz vest.

  13. Jack in NC says:

    Good points, Michael. Personally, I try to think of cycling in the road first and foremost as being a road user, and then consider what differences there may be in being a cyclist.

    So, I agree that there are a number of things that may cause a cyclist to need to wobble, in the same way that there are a number of things that may cause other road users to wobble or swerve. All road users must be aware of how the various attributes of the road environment (or path environment, in the case of separated bike/ped facilities), may impact one another at the exact moment that they are all using it. That’s an awful lot of words that basically says, “pay attention.” But, *in general,* I think its a reasonable expectation for motorists to think cyclists will be aiming to travel in a straight line, in the same way that other road users (cyclists or other motorists) expect a motorist to be aiming to travel a straight line.

    Same thing goes for visibility and the like. I don’t feel like its a concession to try to make myself as relatively visible as a motorist by using vi-viz vests and the like. Its not a concession for motorists to have taillights, turn lights, brake lights and backing lights (and tones, in some cases). By the token, I think it makes sense, as a cyclist, to make myself as visible as possible within the context of having a smaller viewable surface area to make visible, and having less electrical gear on board with which to illuminate.

    You’re right that motorists must be prepared for a number of unexpected events that won’t be visible (“child, dog, livestock or boulder”), I just don’t think cyclists should fall into that category. As we are preparing to engage purposefully with other road users, we should endeavor to engage with them responsibly and not put those road users in a position to have to treat us as if we’re a randomly-occuring potential emergency.

    Take care,

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