Gear Prudence: Do drivers treat bicyclists differently depending on whether they?re wearing bike clothes or normal clothes? I didn?t think so, but I?ve recently started riding to work in my work clothes and I feel like I?m being treated much better. Way more patient, way less honking. Or am I totally making this up? ?Could Lycra Outfits Thoroughly Hamper Empathy, Safety?
Dear CLOTHES: It?s really hard to generalize about how drivers treat cyclists as this behavior is wildly variable, depending on the individual driver, the individual cyclist, and the context in which they come together. But GP isn?t going to let this stop him from wildly generalizing: Yes, drivers do treat cyclists differently depending on what they?re wearing, and people wearing natural fibers are generally treated with a greater degree of deference and understanding. Let?s look at why, in spite of not much evidence whatsoever, this is supposed to be definitely true.
There are two sides to the theory that underlies this, and both relate to driver perception. Consider first the person riding in full Lycra kit?the one who conforms to the perception of what a ?real cyclist? is. This person, irrespective of actual behavior or ability, looks like she really knows how to ride a bicycle. That the rider is both competent, capable, and fast is supposed merely by her attire. This assumption, to everyone?s detriment, causes drivers to not take as much care, slow down, or worry about giving this rider an appropriate amount of space.
Now consider the bicyclist in standard-issue clothes. This isn?t a cyclist per se, but just a regular person who happens to be riding a bike. Therefore, the theory goes, drivers are somehow better able to relate to this ?regular? person and react accordingly, giving the person due care and caution and overall treating him much more sympathetically. Somehow clothes?and clothes alone?create an underlying condition of rapport that leads to a better overall interaction. Is this actually true? Um, maybe. It even has a goofy name?the Mary Poppins Effect?presumably because riding a bike involves Victorian costuming and flying umbrellas.
But even if it?s true, is it actionable? Should you forswear your preferred biking attire for the supposed safety benefits to be gained from looking like a non-bicyclist when bicycling? No way. You should wear what you want, and if what you want to wear is full cycling kit, then go nuts. Cyclists needn?t game drivers? perceptions and sympathies to have a safe cycling experience. Whether it?s spandex, a suit, or a Chewbacca costume, ride in what makes you comfortable and don?t worry about the illusory benefits of a silly-named maybe-true phenomenon. ?GP
Gear Prudence is Brian McEntee, who tweets at @sharrowsDC. Got a questions about bicycling? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.