Baby-Blue and the Bike

It has long been an acknowledged fact of human nature that we make assumptions on people based on the way they look. It’s not something any of us do on purpose – it’s just ingrained. But what happens when those judgments take place on the road?

A study by Ian Walker, who researches psychology at the University of Bath, looked into the way drivers react to cyclists depending upon appearance – you can read an outline here.

Dr Walker fitted a bicycle with a video camera and an ultrasonic distance sensor – and recorded 2,300 overtakes during commutes.

Findings showed that drivers passed much closer when the cyclist rode close to the middle of the road, wore a helmet, and appeared male. That’s correct – females not wearing helmets are safer than men in helmets.

Safe cycling: no helmet and female
Safe cycling: no helmet and female

With regard to helmet use, Walker said:

“The helmet effect is likely the result of drivers judging cyclists’ skill levels from their appearance and adjusting their overtaking accordingly.”

The assumption that because a cyclist is skilled and accustomed to road riding means it’s ok to overtake closely is obviously not a great bit of logic. Human brain: 0. Injury statistics: 1. Still, as I said, decisions based on appearance are usually made in a snap – unfortunate as the outcome might be. Personally, I wouldn’t let this research influence my helmet wearing practice. If it’s going to happen – I’m better off with a lid on it.

Coming on to gender, Walker commented:

“The gender effect could be the result of female cyclists being rarer than male cyclists in the UK, or it may again be related to drivers’ perceptions of rider experience and predictability.”

It’s a pity that drivers are likely to expect female cyclists to be unpredictable in their riding behaviour. However, it’s got to be noted that perhaps this is one of those situations where it’s best just to make lemonade with lemons.

I read this study a few weeks ago, thought about it a little, and then packed it away to the back of my mind. Until I deviated from my normal riding attire.

I usually wear black kit – mainly because black (with pink decals) is often the alternative option to pink. This is my favourite jersey – the Castelli Perla fits perfectly – I particularly like the fact the sleeves hug my arms exactly right in that ‘awesome quality’ Castelli way:

My Castelli Perla jersey - the favourite
My Castelli Perla jersey – the favourite

Unless I’m taking a ‘long-cut’, I ride home along a busy and fairly narrow road. There isn’t really a good amount of room for a driver to overtake without moving over to the other side of the road, but of course, they try. I’m well practiced at the classic ‘shaking my head at you in your rear view mirror’ guilt trip (not that many drivers care).

When I made a change from my normal black, I was reminded of this study. I recently decided to branch out and test water with some new colours. It took me a little while – but I found this, from Mavic:

My new 'cloud' jersey
My new ‘cloud’ jersey

Riding home from work in the jersey recently, I noticed I’d managed about 5 miles without a single car overtaking rashly. This was strange enough, and I wondered if my new jersey might be having some sort of ‘arsehole driver deflection’ properties.

It got better. Emerging from a junction, and waiting for a car to turn right, a white van driver actually stopped his vehicle in order to let me out. This was most bizarre. Usually, drivers are unlikely to stop when it is your right of way, let alone make pause in their trip when the road laws swing in their direction.

Now of course, black or blue jersey – I’m still (hopefully!) clearly female. However,  I imagine my baby blue choice makes me appear less ‘aggressive cyclist’ (read: jumps read lights) and more ‘girly’ (read: lacking experience and predictability).

It is possible that perhaps drivers took more care because I was more visible. That being said – in order to overtake a driver has to be fairly close. It it’s dark I’ve got lights on and a white gilet – so I’m pretty unmissable. In the light, I don’t really think black to blue makes me stand out more since by white shoes, pink legs and general existence should really be enough when you’re within 3 meters of me.

Perhaps the new courtesy was because I’d made more of an effort to be visible – but then the rash overtaking of helmeted cyclists doesn’t imply our own efforts to protect ourselves make drivers view us more kindly. In fact, the more gear we have, the less safe we are if the driving population deems us to be ‘lycra louts.’

Anecdotal evidence seems to support my baby blue vs black jersey theory. A journalist speaking to Total Womens Cycling recently mentioned a story shared by one of his female bike courier interviewees: “[she] was once in a bit of an altercation with a “white van man”, who was having a go at her. It was winter and she was all wrapped up and her hair was covered, but when she looked up and he saw she was a woman – he began apologising profusely”

Without repeating the same loop, at the same time of day, in various attire, it would be hard to test this theory absolutely. And, since Walker has already assessed 2,300 overtakes, it would take some impressive research for me to attempt to prove or disprove his theory.

It would seem, however, that appearing more feminine, or if you’re unfortunate enough to be male, less ‘aggressive cyclist’ and more ‘beginner’, might not do much harm to safety on the bike. I’m still not leaving my helmet at home, of course.

Published by michellearthursbrennan

I'm an NCTJ Journalist and work at Cycling Weekly. Previous to this, I was the Editor at Total Women's Cycling. I've also dabbled in marketing and copywriting - having been Marketing Coordinator and Social Media/Content Editor at Evans Cycles. My first job was working on a local newspaper.  I've written for a variety of titles on a freelance basis, too. I got into cycling when I entered my first triathlon in 2010. I now race crits, road races, time trials, and do a lot of track training for not very much track racing.

5 thoughts on “Baby-Blue and the Bike

  1. As a motorist, someone in light blue is easier to see (especially when it gets dark) than someone in black. So I’m more likely to be able to give them a bit of space and even respect. So stick to the light blue!

  2. Hiya
    I’ve elaborated on that paragraph a little… but though visibility should obviously be encouraged, I think when a driver is anywhere near overtaking, if they’re concentrating on the road they should really be able to see a cyclist whatever colour they’re wearing. Especially in broad daylight, which is when this ride took place. The only exception would be if it is dark and the cyclist doesn’t have sufficient lights. In that case, however, I think the cyclist needs to get off the road and buy some lights.

  3. I’m a female London cycle commuter (and generally bike mad..) I noticed the “girl effect” about a year ago too. I used to ride with my long hair tied back so with helmet, high viz and cycling glasses on – apart from my more shapely bottom – I didn’t look particularly female on my bike, My hydrid and roadbike are both male frame and in winter the multiple layers cover up the curves. After a restyle haircut, with a much shorter shoulder length bob, it was too short to tie back so I stuck my helmet on top and then was surprised at the more room drivers – especially taxi and van drivers gave me on overtaking and the greater number of junctions I was let out of than before when they thought I was male. I also got beeped and sworn at less. Since then my hair has grown longer but I don’t tie it back now for commuting – leave it free as an extra safety measure. I’ve also recently gone from blonde to brunette but that doesn’t seem to have negated the effect! The only downside is the greater number of male cyclists who get indigent when I overtake them – making desperate efforts to get back past me. But then dropping them, especially on the next hill, is more satisfying too!

    Great to find your blog which gives a female perspective.
    Rachel B

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