Cyclists: Be Safe - Be Seen as a Bad Target Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Cyclists: Be Safe - Be Seen as a Bad Target

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Sleek bodies topped off with colourful aerodynamic helmets can acquire an aura of invincibility. However, such bodies do not withstand attack, evade danger or reconstitute themselves in the miraculous manner of superheroes or supervillains.

Cycle helmets do not prevent accidents from happening; there is plentiful and growing evidence to suggest that wearing a helmet makes collisions more, not less, likely to occur, as both riders and motorists are encouraged to relax their caution by the appearance of protection. In fact, approved helmets offer scant protection against the commonest cause of serious cyclist injury, namely impact from a heavier vehicle. They are designed and tested to be effective against direct blows to the head such as might occur when falling from a stationary or slowly moving bicycle. Although helmet use in the US has risen over recent decades, the number of head injuries per cyclist per annum has risen even faster, rather than falling as expected.

A Bicycling Mystery

Here are two quotes from a piece in The New York Times1:

Millions of parents take it as an article of faith that putting a bicycle helmet on their children, or themselves, will help keep them out of harm's way. But new data on bicycle accidents raises questions about that. The number of head injuries has increased ten percent since 1991, even as bicycle helmet use has risen sharply, according to figures compiled by the [United States] Consumer Product Safety Commission. But given that ridership has declined over the same period, the rate of head injuries per active cyclist has increased 51 percent just as bicycle helmets have become widespread.
It's puzzling to me that we can't find the benefit of bike helmets here.
- Ronald L Medford, Assistant Executive Director of the Safety Commission's Hazard Identification Office.

A Possible Explanation

What could account for such a surprising development?

One possible explanation can be derived from the consideration of aggressive and defensive camouflage in living creatures.

The Importance of Appearance

Mimicry in nature has produced startling forms of outward appearance that protect their wearers by advertising true or false facts. Predators appear disguised as harmless things, or melt into the background; tasty edible bugs appear disguised as poisonous ones, as stinging insects or indigestible twigs.

The reasons for mimicry are generally obvious; all non-white polar bears became extinct ages ago, having died of hunger in hard times when they couldn't sneak up on seals as effectively as their whiter cousins. Flies that happened to resemble wasps were allowed to survive by predators that could have eaten them but chose not to, and so on. See such studies as Life on Earth for endless examples.

Survival Strategies

So what is the best survival strategy for a cyclist? To be seen, certainly; but to be seen as what?

One definitely doesn't want to be seen as something that will bounce if dropped.

What Exactly is the Threat?

One Researcher says:

It is easy and crazy in equal measure to cast 'the motorist' as the enemy. Let me here pay heartfelt thanks to the hundreds of motorists who forbear to crush me every time I cycle. I owe my life to every one of you.
I like you to see me for what I am - a mostly harmless grandad getting about his business peacefully and quietly. I have given up wearing a helmet, not least because on my kind of bike, a recumbent, the chances of being thrown on my head in an accident are very greatly reduced (at a guess I would say to the level of a pedestrian's chances).
If there were a helmet that looked exactly like my cloth cap, that's what I would wear. What I wish to appeal to is the motorist's appreciation of my very real vulnerability; in this I daily put my trust.

The Ideal Cycling Guise

However, if we decide to take on the predatory role, our ideal persona is surely:

One who will not hesitate to sue for the slightest infringement, with overwhelming likelihood of success in a court case.

The piece of equipment that will perfectly serve the twin purposes of

  1. Cushioning the skull against falls, and
  2. Acting as a sharp and constant reminder of a driver's duty to his neighbour, is...
  • A helmet designed to look just like a barrister's wig.

This can be counted on to do its job even in times and places where barristers no longer wear such accessories.

The arresting image is all.


A cycle helmet is not an all-round physical protection device like the 'shields' in Star Trek. Use of a cool helmet may induce a subconscious assumption in road users that the cyclist is more resilient than is actually the case. The talisman effect, if it is to work, should make the rider's vulnerability more rather than less obvious.

The measures suggested above have not yet been tested, so this Entry can not as a whole be classed as 'factual'. Rather, it points out a warning: any dress with even the slightest overtones of super-powers may be strategically A Very Bad Choice.

1A Bicycling Mystery: Head Injuries Piling Up by Julian E Barnes, The New York Times, 29 July, 2001.

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