Drivers Dehumanize Cyclists Wearing Helmets or Vests

A recent study found that drivers viewed cyclists wearing a helmet or safety vest as

  • A recent study found that drivers viewed cyclists wearing a helmet or safety vest as “less human.”
  • This research could add fuel to the debate over bike helmet mandates in the US.
  • Many bicycling advocates argue helmet mandates make bicyclists less safe for a variety of reasons.

Anyone who’s bicycled on car-dominated streets knows how unwelcome drivers can make them feel. 

But basic measures cyclists take to protect themselves in the case of an accident could actually be hurting them. A recent study conducted in Australia by academics at Queensland University and Flinders University found that bicyclists who wear helmets or safety vests might be putting themselves more at risk than if they’d gone without safety attire.

Researchers found that cyclists wearing helmets or vests are viewed as “less human” than those without any safety gear on. They surveyed 563 people, asking them to answer a questionnaire using photos of people in both cycling-specific attire and regular clothes to assess perceptions of dehumanization. Eight different photos — four of a man and four of a woman — showed a model standing with a bicycle while wearing either no safety gear, a baseball cap, a bicycle helmet, or a high-visibility vest. 

Respondents also rated bicyclists on a dehumanization scale, placing them somewhere between a bug and a human, and answered other questions relating to behavior and demographics. Those surveyed said that a man or woman wearing a high-visibility vest looked the least human, while those wearing no gear were seen as the most human. 

And those who view cyclists as less than human are more likely to be a threat to cyclists on the streets. A 2019 study found a link between dehumanization and aggressive driving around cyclists. 

The 2019 study found that “respondents who rated cyclists as 89 percent human or less showed 1.87 times more direct aggressive behaviors to cyclists compared to the respondents who rated cyclist as more than 90 percent human.” 

Previous research has found that generally negative views about cyclists are also associated with more dangerous and aggressive driving. 

The researchers initially hypothesized that both a helmet and baseball cap would make a cyclist appear less human by obscuring their head and hair. But the study, published in Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour, found that both the helmet and the vest were more likely to dehumanize a rider than the baseball cap. 

Overall, 30% of respondents viewed cyclists as less than fully human. 

The survey respondents weren’t representative of the Australian population — they were “more likely to be male, earn higher incomes, be employed full time, be middle aged, and more highly educated,” the researchers noted. They were also much more likely to bicycle regularly — 72% said they rode at least once a week, compared to 12% of the Australian population that does the same. The researchers theorized that regular cyclists were more likely to self-select into a survey about cycling. 

West Side Bicycle Lanes and Cityscape, New York City, New York

A bike lane on the West side of Manhattan in New York City.

GHI/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Bike helmet mandates might do more harm than good

The research could add fuel to the debate over helmet mandates, which are in place in about 200 localities and more than 20 states across the US. There’s no federal bike helmet law, but in 2019, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all 50 states mandate that adults wear helmets (many already require this for kids). 

While helmets have been proven to significantly reduce head injuries and fatalities in bicyclist accidents, many bicycling advocates and others oppose mandates and argue they make streets less safe.  

Colin Browne, communications director for the Washington Area Bicyclist Association, told Insider recently that while wearing a bike helmet is a smart personal choice, helmet mandates are “terrible policy.” He pointed to the fact that Black cyclists and other minority groups are much more likely than white cyclists to be cited by police for not wearing a helmet.

Research has found that cyclists are also safer when there are more of them on the road, in part because more riders is often associated with better infrastructure. Helmet mandates can discourage people from riding in the first place, making the fewer who ride less safe. Advocates also fear mandates can discourage the use of bike sharing systems. 

“Helmet laws as policy are counterproductive and, overall, make biking less safe because they keep a lot of people from biking,” Browne said. 

He also argued that there are a slew of other policies and personal choices that are more effective than wearing helmets at making biking safer. 

“On the list of things to change to make bicycling or scootering safer, helmets are like number ten,” he said. “From a policy standpoint, better infrastructure and lower speed limits and things like that are all going to keep people a lot safer.”

Notably, bike helmet usage and mandates are rare in cities with strong bike infrastructure and large numbers of cyclists, including in Europe. In the safest cities for bicyclists in the world — including Utrecht, Netherlands, Munster, Germany, and Antwerp, Belgium — few adults wear bike helmets.