Safety vests and helmets make cyclists look ‘less human’

A QUT study has found cyclists who wear safety vests or helmets look ‘less human’ compared to cyclists who do not wear them.

Lead researcher and Brisbane urban planner Dr Mark Limb, from the QUT School of Architecture and Built Environment, ran the national survey of 560 people as part of his work to encourage more cycling around the city by uncovering some of the potential obstacles to riding a bike.

The results have been published in the latest edition of Transportation Research Part F: Traffic Psychology and Behaviour.

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Dr Limb and co-author Dr Sarah Collyer, a psychology researcher from Flinders University’s Caring Futures Institute, had hypothesised that people wearing bicycle helmets would be perceived as less human compared to people without helmets, due to reduced visibility of eyes and hair.

But their survey found high-visibility safety vests topped the dehumanisation list, followed by helmets.

“We also asked people their overall view of cyclists and found that 30 per cent of respondents considered cyclists less than fully human,” Dr Limb said.

Some survey respondents who identified as cyclists themselves also used the survey to share some of their own experiences with safety and appearance.

“Some noted that they felt they are treated differently by road uses depending on the attire they wear, with full lycra cycling gear attracting more abuse than casual wear,” Dr Limb said.

“One female respondent also said she deliberately left her long hair out when she cycled as she thought it helped her avoid some of the abuse her male counterparts received.”

The new study was inspired by a 2019 Australian study that found more than half of car drivers thought cyclists were not completely human and suggested that this dehumanisation could be one of the triggers of deliberate acts of aggression towards them on the road.

“For this new study, we showed people a series of photographs of two cyclists, where each person was wearing different attire, and asked them which person looked ‘less human’,” Dr Limb said.

“The results showed quite clearly there was a difference between attire types and that people were more likely to select images of cyclists in ‘overt’ safety gear as being less human.

“The photos of cyclists with helmets were 2.5 times more likely to be selected as ‘less human’ than the cyclists with no helmets, and vested cyclists were 3.7 times more likely to be selected.”

“More research is needed in this area, as it raises more questions. For example, is overt safety gear like vests and lycra seen as particularly dehumanising because some people associate that sort of attire with cyclists who ride in groups – and those formations can sometimes be unpopular with other road users?

“Also, many risk-taking studies have found that men are more likely to take risks than women, and more likely to look down on risk avoidance strategies. We found that men were more likely than women to think that some type of safety gear made cyclists look less than human … so is this partly because men are more dismissive in general of risk avoidance?”

Dr Collyer said the findings also raised questions about how we view other people in our society who wear ‘high-vis’ gear.

“Our study found that both males and females wearing ‘high-vis’ safety wear were consistently rated ‘less human’,” she said.

“Does this mean people see road work crews, for example, as ‘less human’ and, if so, what does that mean for their safety?

“If the findings from our study cause people to think about how we view cyclists and other vulnerable road uses, that will be a good outcome. What goes through our mind when we see a cyclist when we are driving? Do we think of them as someone just like us who is just trying to get to work or home, or do we view them differently?”

Dr Limb is an urban planning lecturer with research areas including land use planning and active transportation such as cycling.

He said Brisbane already had many good cycling pathways that separated cyclists from motorists and encouraged cycling uptake.

“In the lead-up to the Brisbane 2032 Olympics and Paralympics, we have a chance to ‘fill in the gaps’ in our cycling network and really make Brisbane a great cycling city,” he said.

“The Olympics is the perfect time to do this – a bike is such a good way to get around, particularly for visitors and tourists.”

Next week Dr Limb and his family will head off on their own travels to one of the great cycling countries of the world – The Netherlands.

“We’re taking the kids, our bikes and camping gear and we’re going to ride and camp across The Netherlands for four weeks,” he said.

“Amsterdam and The Netherlands have amazing cycling infrastructure – they have that very high proportion of people who ride bikes because they make it as easy as possible to jump on a bike and they have infrastructure which physically separates cyclists from vehicles.

“You can’t build a major road there without it having a separated bike lane. They built it into the road standards, so every time a road got resurfaced it had to have cycling infrastructure … back street by back street they transformed the country.

“It hasn’t always been like that – many Dutch cities were quite car-centric in the 1970s. So there’s hope for all cities to gradually evolve.

“It’s essential that we provide safe facilities for people to ride on and keep expanding our infrastructure. A city that has active transport is safer, healthier, quieter, and more environmentally friendly. It’s something that all city planners should be aspiring to do and encouraging more people to ride.”


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