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Cyclists wearing helmets seen as "less human" than those without, researchers find

Of those surveyed, 30 per cent said they considered cyclists as less than fully human

A new study from Australia found that an alarming number of people do not see cyclists as human, with those riding bicycles while wearing helmets or safety vests seen as less human compared to those without.

The research comes from Mark Limb of Queensland University of Technology and Sarah Collyer of Flinders University, and was published in Volume 95 of Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.

Noting that efforts to increase cycling uptake are hindered by negative attitudes towards cyclists, the survey asked 563 people their views on cyclists and attempted to provide empirical evidence that explains these dehumanising perceptions.

Of 563 people surveyed, 30 per cent considered cyclists less than fully human, and the researchers looked to evaluate how wearing helmets and other safety clothing may affect the way cyclists are viewed.

"We tested this hypothesis through a survey comprised of two-paired alternate forced choice questions to identify which image of a cyclist respondents consider to be less human," the study's abstract explains.

"We then analysed the results using a Bradley-Terry probability model. We found images of cyclists wearing helmets or safety vests to have a higher probability of being selected as less human compared to images of cyclists wearing no safety equipment. The results have implications for research on cyclist dehumanisation and its mitigation."

Cyclists with helmets were perceived as less human compared to those without, while cyclists with safety vests and no helmets were perceived as least human.

The researchers concluded that dehumanisation related more to visible safety gear than obstruction of hair or eyes and the perceptions of dehumanisation also varied based on respondent gender.

On the same lines, cyclists wearing a cap were viewed as more human than those wearing a full helmet.

"Our findings add to this growing research, suggesting that cyclists wearing safety attire, particularly high-visibility vests, may be dehumanised more so than cyclists without safety attire," the study concludes. 

"As dehumanisation has been found to be predictive of hostile and aggressive behaviour (Kteily & Landry, 2022), our finding highlights a potential conflict around the perception and utility of safety gear such as high-visibility vests; although designed for safety, they may inadvertently increase levels of hostility and aggression towards this group of vulnerable road users."

Dan is the road.cc news editor and has spent the past four years writing stories and features, as well as (hopefully) keeping you entertained on the live blog. Having previously written about nearly every other sport under the sun for the Express, and the weird and wonderful world of non-league football for the Non-League Paper, Dan joined road.cc in 2020. Come the weekend you'll find him labouring up a hill, probably with a mouth full of jelly babies, or making a bonk-induced trip to a south of England petrol station... in search of more jelly babies.

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33 comments

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Benji326 | 11 months ago
2 likes

Oh my god! I've just seen the GCN show with the lead scientist on talking about the actual test that was conducted, bit of a joke if you asked me. People were shown three photos, one with someone wearing a helmet and glasses, one with a baseball cap and one with person wearing just a hi-vis vest and were asked "which one looks least human?", I would probably pick the one with the helmet too 🤦‍♂️ 

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grOg | 11 months ago
0 likes

As an Australian, motorists there view cyclists that don't wear helmets as law-breaking bogans and likely to ride unsafely in traffic, so they do view them differently to law abiding cyclists that wear helmets, but less human? strange.

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bianchi51 | 11 months ago
1 like

World Nude Cycling Day could be the real test...

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tubasti | 11 months ago
2 likes

That's the unscientific conclusion I drew after a couple of years wearig a hard-shell helmet, 30 years ago, after 25 years of riding without one. The passes got closer and faster. The oncoming near-misses got closer and more numerous. And the pedestrians strolling out in front of me got more numerous. I sensed that non-cyclists were seeing me more as a symbol or meme than an ordinary human being riding a bicycle.

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planetjanet | 11 months ago
1 like

Why does Road CC regurgitate this obvious nonsense? Is it still April 1st?

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bbbean | 11 months ago
1 like

I'm less than impressed. The link from questionairre answers to behavior is tenuous at best, and less so when your conclusion relies on "well known tendencies".

Follow this research with controlled studies of measurable behavior, and then we can begin to do some actual risk/benefit analysis of appearance versus protection.

Personally, I'll opt to protect my head and trust the statistics that show that the likelihood of being involved in a car/bike collision is remarkably low. I'll ride defensively and not worry too much about whether drivers think I'm human or not. As long as they don't hit me, I don't care.

BB

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Paul J replied to bbbean | 11 months ago
0 likes

Ian Walker, University of Bath - sometime reader of this site I think - has actually done studies on measuring distance of passes, with sensors, previously. He found that drivers (in the UK) *quantifiably* are more likely to close pass cyclists in road gear and helmets than those without:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0001457518309928?via%...

The methods of this Australian study may be somewhat less rigorous, but they are consistent with the prior results found via more objective, methodologies.

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Calc | 11 months ago
2 likes

In my sample size of one , I get 'given' much more room riding my mountain bike by passing drivers. On my road bike I get a lot of close passes and some 'friendly' bumps. Wearing helmet and yellow jersey both types of bike.

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Sriracha replied to Calc | 11 months ago
4 likes

I think you could be on to something there. Motorists probably are more triggered by "does he think he's in the TdF" than by "regular Jo/e on a bike like what I once rode as a kid".

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Hirsute | 11 months ago
1 like

Ah the old Bradley Terry model. An improvement to the Bradley Wiggins one.

I'm not sure I really follow the methodology or if it is reliable.

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macbaby replied to Hirsute | 11 months ago
1 like

It seems to involve a forced answer of questions - "are the subjects of these two photos more or less human than each other". If that's so, I'd question the quality of the findings. It would involve an assumption of the relative humanity of two humans. Hmm, not convinced 

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yourealwaysbe replied to macbaby | 11 months ago
1 like

Indeed -- the main focus was the forced questions, so someone was bound to come out as less than human. The authors acknowledge that, of course. In this sense, results are more about which attire, if any, is generally perceived as less human, rather than by how much. So "a cap is more human than a full face helmet", but that could be "completely" or "well, only if you make me choose". I'd say there's some contribution there, but it's not quite what you first think of when you see the headline.

The second part of the questions literally asked respondents to rate cyclists on a scale of "insect to human", and only 70% put 100% human. A futher 13.7% put 91-99% human. The average was 93.5% human. I'm not sure what i'd conclude from that, since it's such an odd question to be asked.

Coincidentally, maybe, 72% of the respondents were cyclists (the authors advertised for people to fill in a survey on cycling gear).

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Mungecrundle | 11 months ago
12 likes

I'm willing to put myself forward as a control sample for the study.

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brooksby | 11 months ago
0 likes

(edited)

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RoubaixCube replied to brooksby | 11 months ago
1 like

Holy HTML Code Batman

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brooksby replied to RoubaixCube | 11 months ago
8 likes

Yeah, if I post on here using the Brave browser on my phone it adds all that extra cr@p... Haven't worked out why.

What intended to say, was: was this study carried out in the same Australia which made helmets mandatory? I wonder what the authorities have to say about it...

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HoldingOn | 11 months ago
13 likes

"Wear hi-vis or we can't see you!"
"GET THE HI-VIS SUBHUMAN!"
I see what they did there...

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morgoth985 | 11 months ago
6 likes

I don't mean at all to question the learned researchers' findings, and I think I get the theory behind them, but I still find them profoundly disturbing.  Do people really, *really*, think that way?  Bloody hell.

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hawkinspeter replied to morgoth985 | 11 months ago
12 likes

Morgoth985 wrote:

I don't mean at all to question the learned researchers' findings, and I think I get the theory behind them, but I still find them profoundly disturbing.  Do people really, *really*, think that way?  Bloody hell.

I'd say that it's fairly common across human societies. There's a well known political tactic that relies on "othering" a group so that people come to see them as dangerous to their own way of life. At the risk of Godwinning this thread already, Hitler obviously used Jews as a scapegoat for all of Germany's problems at the time and deliberately categorised them as less than human. You see similar patterns in modern discourse, especially in the U.S. where the far-right are banning LGBTS related books from schools and libraries. (Also, compare with cyclist infrastructure being blamed for increased congestion and pollution).

Of course, cyclists aren't "othered" to the same degree as other persecuted groups, but it does lead to unnecessary violence and death whenever the media pushes an "othering" narrative.

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morgoth985 replied to hawkinspeter | 11 months ago
5 likes

Agreed, and I was consciously trying to avoid Godwin myself, despite the obvious.  Pretty sick thought though however it arises.

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chrisonabike replied to hawkinspeter | 11 months ago
2 likes

Pretty basic or even fundamental "feature" of humans, I'd say.

Likely based on smaller mechanisms / biases which may pre-date the existence of humans and which may be vital.  Examples include in-group / out-group recognition and bias towards the former, systems to detect "cheating" (vital for cooperation / social exchange) etc.

It may be possible to leverage this to increase safety.  It's also a lot easier to address than the other "-isms" as most people can change their transport mode at will.

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chrisonabike replied to chrisonabike | 11 months ago
2 likes

I wonder if this is one reason why modal share doesn't change much in the absence of a network of proper cycle infra?  It's easy to tell a cyclist from a motorist and each mode has very different characteristics.  So where sharing space there will be conflict of interest and likely "us and them".  Which as we know normally favours the motor vehicle.

There seems to be an immediate contradiction to that though.  In NL there is far more "shared space" (on roads) than separate cycle paths.  How does that work?

Firstly most people there (or their relatives) cycle at some point.  Secondly planners and designers ensure that sharing is only required where motor vehicles are infrequent and speeds are low.  So maybe drivers do not see streets e.g. in residential areas as "theirs"?  Supporting that idea apparently if you do try to ride on a road with a higher speed limit and accompanying cycle path people are not slow to tell you to get on the cycle path!

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hawkinspeter replied to chrisonabike | 11 months ago
4 likes

chrisonatrike wrote:

I wonder if this is one reason why modal share doesn't change much in the absence of a network of proper cycle infra?  It's easy to tell a cyclist from a motorist and each mode has very different characteristics.  So where sharing space there will be conflict of interest and likely "us and them".  Which as we know normally favours the motor vehicle.

There seems to be an immediate contradiction to that though.  In NL there is far more "shared space" (on roads) than separate cycle paths.  How does that work?

Firstly most people there (or their relatives) cycle at some point.  Secondly planners and designers ensure that sharing is only required where motor vehicles are infrequent and speeds are low.  So maybe drivers do not see streets e.g. in residential areas as "theirs"?  Supporting that idea apparently if you do try to ride on a road with a higher speed limit and accompanying cycle path people are not slow to tell you to get on the cycle path!

I suspect that the "othering" tactic doesn't gain much traction if there's a decent percentage of that group in most social circles. If you're having a good old moan about being held up by cyclists in a progressive city, then the chances are that someone in your group will disagree as they cycle and can point out the fallacies.

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cmedred replied to hawkinspeter | 11 months ago
9 likes

Your sample size may be too small, hawkinspeter. The sense of entitlement runs deep in all motorists. The fundamental belief here is that roads are for motor vehicles, and cyclists are in the way. It's not so much a prejudice problem as a motonormativity problem. Society has created the belief that you "should'' be able to get anywhere at anytime easily and promptly in a motor vehicle. In this dynamic, cyclists seem little different than the victims of so-called "road rage.'' They're both irritating for "getting in the way,'' so to speak. But cyclists especially so because if you're a good progressive you don't want to actually run over one, because that would look bad, but this desire can deprive you of the opportunity to be checking your social media and email regularly while motoring, which is a huge price to pay for those cyclists being on "your" road. You might note the regular attacks on cyclists on the pavement as dangerous. It's a reflection of how they are viewed differently by motorists because their transportation system is generally segregated from the roads and thus there is no need for motorists to watch out for them except at designated crossings. And never you mind that any number of them get hit elsewhere than at crossings because motorists aren't paying attention. This is easily dismissed as the fault of the pedestrian because he/she "shouldn't be there.'' https://timeline.com/road-rage-history-los-angeles-563259c3ba78

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jh2727 replied to cmedred | 11 months ago
0 likes

cmedred wrote:

Your sample size may be too small, hawkinspeter. The sense of entitlement runs deep in all motorists. The fundamental belief here is that roads are for motor vehicles, and cyclists are in the way. It's not so much a prejudice problem as a motonormativity problem. Society has created the belief that you "should'' be able to get anywhere at anytime easily and promptly in a motor vehicle. In this dynamic, cyclists seem little different than the victims of so-called "road rage.'' They're both irritating for "getting in the way,'' so to speak.

All motoriststs? Most motorists who have very little experience of using the road as any other type of road user, I'll give you. When I first passed my driving test, I had very little experience of cycling, particularly on the road - now that I have spent countless hours cycling on the road, I never have the feeling of being 'stuck behind' a cyclist - or for that matter; a bus, or a bin lorry, or an HGV that needs to perform a tricky maneouvre, or a learner driver, etc..

In my opinion, I don't think this starts when becoming a motorist. It starts with; how we teach our children to be pedestrians, how we teach our children to ride their bikes and how our children see us react to others when we use the road. E.g. if we teach our children that they should be careful of cars because cars are dangerous, we can hardly be surprised that when they begin to drive, they drive like it is the responsibility of vunlerable road users to be careful of them - rather than their responsibility as drivers, to drive carefully. 

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jh2727 replied to hawkinspeter | 11 months ago
0 likes

hawkinspeter wrote:

If you're having a good old moan about being held up by cyclists in a progressive city, then the chances are that someone in your group will disagree as they cycle and can point out the fallacies.

Fallacies can be pointed out - but actually changing someone's opinion is a much more difficult task.  I'll never forget the motorist who had a 'good old moan' about me 'forcing him to overtake unsafely and almost having a head on collision' - about 30 seconds down the road, as I cycled past him and he was stationary, about five changes of the lights away from the front of the queue that I was filtering past - I could have tried to explain the irony to him, but I doubt I would have had much success. 

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hawkinspeter replied to chrisonabike | 11 months ago
6 likes

chrisonatrike wrote:

Pretty basic or even fundamental "feature" of humans, I'd say.

Likely based on smaller mechanisms / biases which may pre-date the existence of humans and which may be vital.  Examples include in-group / out-group recognition and bias towards the former, systems to detect "cheating" (vital for cooperation / social exchange) etc.

It may be possible to leverage this to increase safety.  It's also a lot easier to address than the other "-isms" as most people can change their transport mode at will.

Yeah, it's definitely a deep down instinct that probably comes from our territorial primate background.

What we (as a society) should be doing is recognising this tendency and attempting to defuse it by always incorporating the human element where possible. This is why reporting on RTCs should mention the driver rather than the vehicle and we should definitely avoid language that lumps people together in a derisory way (e.g. referring to illegal refugees rather than people seeking asylum from brutal regimes).

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Car Delenda Est replied to hawkinspeter | 11 months ago
4 likes

I believe they are most commonly referred to as immigrants instead of as refugees. So they're supposedly here to steal our jobs rather than escape oppression.

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stonojnr replied to morgoth985 | 11 months ago
2 likes

Have you not experienced that effect whilst out cycling then ?

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hawkinspeter | 11 months ago
9 likes

Less human, you say?

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