A study in the U.K. made the news recently, primarily (I think) because it fits so well into our "fearful soundbyte" model of news presentation. So televisions have been blaring with well-groomed talking heads saying things like "Is your bicycle helmet putting you at risk? Find out at 11:00!" The Walker study of 2,500 passing cars showed that test cyclists were given 8.5 cm (3.3 inches) more clearance by cars if they were not wearing helmets and the alarming headlines quickly followed.
The most unfortunate thing about the fearful soundbyte is that many people don't look beyond the soundbyte. But there is more to the story and this link is a good place to start:
The above page looks critically at the study and brings up a very relevant variable in the cyclist/motorist interactions, the lane position of the cyclist. John Forester has long advocated "taking the lane" in his Effective Cycling book and courses. But the Effective Cycling folks are not without their critics as well. As with many things, I find it most useful to listen to what the loud voices have to say and try to find the part that seems true and workable. A recent discussion on the Bicycle Touring List on this subject made a lot of sense to me and I'm directly quoting the two people involved with their permission:
A fellow named Bob very nicely summarized the Effective Cycling "take the lane" strategy and Alberto responded:
I think you make a good point that I seem unable to follow: being more aggressive in taking the lane as opposed to the extreme right position on the road. It makes a lot of sense to make cars "see you" in the lane so they supposedly have to venture into the opposing lane to pass you with sufficient space. Riding with my friend Paco, who is a seasoned racer and does many training miles on the road, I find it very uncomfortable to follow his technique of taking the lane so aggressively as I ride close on my right. I find that cars tend to get more ticked off at him than me, though, as they cannot pass until they have clear room from the opposing lane. It is true, however, that cars seem to squeeze closer to me than to him, though I've never felt in danger in my position.
Very interesting idea to think about and work through.
Seasoned touring cyclist Mark Boyd replied with this advice with the list:
I think keeping far right does encourage people to pass close, but sometimes that is what you want. When I am riding in light to moderate traffic, where passing is not difficult, I will take the lane because that is safer. However, if traffic is heavy, I will do every thing I can, including getting off the road periodically, to help cars and, especially, trucks, get by me. Under those circumstances, I think taking the lane is rude and, while possibly safer for me at the time, will anger drivers and increase the chances that they do something unsafe for bicyclist in the future.
Riding a bicycle safely in traffic on the road requires cooperation between the cyclist(s) and the drivers. Both groups need to recognize the rights of the other group and act in ways that help the other group share the road with them. Taking the lane can be a good thing or a bad thing. The experienced rider should be able to decide which it is in any given circumstance.
I follow the rule that, in traffic, I should ride as near the edge of the road as practical. It is up to me to judge where that is. It can, and does, change as road and traffic conditions change. It can, and does, depend on the drivers behavior. If I 'give' drivers the lane because they need it to get past me and the result feels dangerous to me, I'll take it back again or, in extreme cases, get off that road.
Like Mark, I try to ride safely and courteously. All of us on the road are trying to make our way in the world.
I've mentioned this before, but it's worth repeating. A good page on cycling safety is Michael Bluejay's How Not To Get Hit By Cars at: