The Mary Poppins Effect and Happy Helmets

I left work yesterday evening, unlocked my bike and prepared to set off when I realized that I forgot my helmet in my office. It was one of those days when the idea of locking my bike again, removing my bag, going upstairs and unlocking my office was unbearable, so I decided to continue on helmetless. If I had a busy route, I would have retrieved my helmet, but my route is a series of calm side-streets.

Me and Betty on yesterday's evening commute

This was one of my first times riding Betty Foy without a helmet. I have done it more often riding Oma, but Betty is faster and has more aggressive positioning.

My ride home was perfectly fine and I felt comfortable on the road. In fact, drivers were extremely nice to me. No one passed too closely or cut me off, and many drivers gave me an extra wide berth or slowed behind me until they could pass safely. I wonder if this behavior had something to do with the Mary Poppins Effect, as several people commented previously that when they don’t wear helmets, drivers are kinder. But my usual Nutcase helmet is so sweet and happy, I don’t see why wearing it would make drivers treat me any differently. I think a helmet covered with pink and red hearts would contribute to the Mary Poppins Effect.

Maybe the kindness was caused by the perfect fall weather, which put everyone in a really good mood. Or maybe it was partly in my head, since I was already wondering if drivers would treat me differently. Regardless, I’m more worried about drivers who never see me at all, so I will continue to wear my helmet most of the time. Maybe when Chicago gets those 100 miles of protected bike lanes, I’ll feel more comfortable going without. :)

{This post is not meant to be all “yay helmets” or “boo helmets” – simply a bit about my day.}

  • Christina

    I’ve felt really conflicted about wearing my helmet lately. I have a very short (less than a mile) ride to the lakefront path, all on quiet side streets, several miles on the path, and then less than a mile ride to my work (again, on quiet side streets). I wear my helmet about 75 percent of the time, and whenever I don’t wear it, I do feel like drivers are less aggressive towards me. But, you’re right, it’s all about the drivers who don’t see you. Hm, very torn about this.

    • http://letsgorideabike.com LGRAB

      I would be inclined not to wear a helmet on the commute you described, only when riding my Dutch bike because I go so darn slow. But it’s funny because of the three times I have crashed, cars have never been involved. Twice I was on the Lakefront path (once when I slipped on ice and once when a skateboarder crashed into me) and the third time I was attacked by train tracks on a quiet street. But I have never hit my head, whereas a crash with a car would be more serious. The scariness of riding among cars is what makes me want a helmet; it’s kinda a psychological thing.

  • Grant Powers

    My helmet has a large reflective red X on the back. I’m curious how that effects automobile drivers.

  • Lauren Taylor

    i’ve read studies that suggest drivers are more aggressive toward cyclists who wear helmets – i can’t really vouch one way or the other, since i personally don’t wear a helmet (sorry!). i do get my share of shitty drivers – i think we all do – but i definitely also gets lots and lots of drivers who are courteous, safe, and give me smiles & thumbs-up when we make eye contact.

    personally, i just like to feel my hair flappin’ in the breeze :D hehe

    • http://pin-hole.tumblr.com Dave

      You don’t need to apologize, it’s your decision.

    • http://letsgorideabike.com LGRAB

      Don’t apologize! I love the feel of the wind in my hair, too. :)

  • Milojinx

    Helmets are funny things that take away your face from direct vision of the driver. This is true not only on a bicycle, but on a motorcycle as well. People are more responsive to you if they see your face. The difference I noticed comparing full face helmets with a dark visor to 3/4 helmets with none or a clear face shield. I think you are viewed differently by not wearing a helmet as more relaxed and fun or perhaps happy?

  • MaryWynn

    Funny, I forgot my helmet in the office yesterday too. It’s the first time I’ve ridden my work route without it, which is down a fairly busy urban street. There just isn’t a safer way to get to my office unfortunately.

    I most definitely did not experience the Mary Poppins Effect. In fact, one gentleman in a very flashy convertible with the top down nearly ran me off the road this morning. I am certain he saw me too, as he looked back at me, perhaps to make sure he didn’t need to flee from the scene of a crime.

    That said, I didn’t really feel less safe than usual. When running errands in the neighborhood I don’t always were the helmet, although my neighbors are ambivalent about bikes and apt to yell at you for being in the road.

  • Pahapackard

    Awesome! Our general rule is for commutin/grocery shopping/social rides (slow bike)no helmet, exercise (fast bike) no helmet. I can’t wait to show my wife your site!

  • Derek and Sara

    I mean exercise – helmet :)

  • http://pin-hole.tumblr.com Dave

    I think in the end, it has a lot to do with the individual. Some people are probably going to treat you differently with a helmet, without a helmet, and some people just probably won’t care. There certainly is no lack of effort to scare people into wearing helmets, and not a lot being done to make people feel comfortable without them (the former is obviously easier and cheaper), and while the cultural reaction often seems to be that going without is irresponsible and almost makes you a threat to society, yet my experience is that the vast majority of people who see me without one don’t care (at least, not out loud), and the vast majority of people I interact with on the road treat me nicely, or at least carefully. I don’t know if that is because of the lack of a helmet, it could be a lot of things.

  • Brian Glover

    This has got to be the most civil comment thread on the helmet question I’ve ever seen. Nice job, everybody!

    • http://liburuak.wordpress.com Bettina

      Indeed :-) – I have to say that until a few months ago when I started reading bike blogs I had no idea there was all this hate of helmets vs. no helmets around, and I still don’t understand why people get so worked up about it. I’ve been riding a bike all my life for transport and fun (as has everyone else around me, I’m from Germany ;-) ), and I think it should be everyone’s personal choice. If a country puts in place a helmet law, then it’s the increasing babying of citizens (which happens in all areas of life, not just bike helmets) we ought to be discussing, not hating on each other about whether to-helmet-or-not-to-helmet. Just my opinion…

      • http://pin-hole.tumblr.com Dave

        I completely agree with you. If your government is imposing helmet laws, you should question the motives of your government, not whether you should wear a helmet or not.

    • http://liburuak.wordpress.com Bettina

      Indeed :-) – I have to say that until a few months ago when I started reading bike blogs I had no idea there was all this hate of helmets vs. no helmets around, and I still don’t understand why people get so worked up about it. I’ve been riding a bike all my life for transport and fun (as has everyone else around me, I’m from Germany ;-) ), and I think it should be everyone’s personal choice. If a country puts in place a helmet law, then it’s the increasing babying of citizens (which happens in all areas of life, not just bike helmets) we ought to be discussing, not hating on each other about whether to-helmet-or-not-to-helmet. Just my opinion…

      • http://pin-hole.tumblr.com Dave

        I completely agree with you.

  • http://twitter.com/lovelybicycle Lovely Bicycle!

    As you say, it’s really hard to tell once you’re already in the state of mind where you’re wondering if you’ll be treated differently. I experienced the same thing when riding my roadbike, in a helmet, en route to paceline rides. It felt as if everyone on the road hated me, but was I imagining it merely because I felt self-conscious dressed “like a roadie”? Possibly!

  • Redeyedtreefr0g

    I personally have always worn my helmet so far, but I admit that I am getting tired of the same old braid. I have classic length hair and love to put it into various styles, but those won’t fit under the helmet.

    Do you have thinner helmet pads for wintertime to fit hats under your helmet, or how do you deal with the colder weather on your head? Are the tights you use just regular thick stockings, or something special?

    I’m slightly depressed about my prospects for winter biking. My commute is 3 miles, but I have zero wool, only light gloves, and sneakers. Even the sweaters at Goodwill aren’t wool. Where are all the sheep?

  • Redeyedtreefr0g

    I personally have always worn my helmet so far, but I admit that I am getting tired of the same old braid. I have classic length hair and love to put it into various styles, but those won’t fit under the helmet.

    Do you have thinner helmet pads for wintertime to fit hats under your helmet, or how do you deal with the colder weather on your head? Are the tights you use just regular thick stockings, or something special?

    I’m slightly depressed about my prospects for winter biking. My commute is 3 miles, but I have zero wool, only light gloves, and sneakers. Even the sweaters at Goodwill aren’t wool. Where are all the sheep?

    • http://pin-hole.tumblr.com Dave

      I’ve found some good wool stuff from J. Crew, and have gotten some nice hats and mittens from Etsy, as well as a few things I was lucky enough to have bought in Lithuania while we lived there and brought back with us. If you have vintage clothing stores in your town, check those out too – I’ve found a couple of really nice wool coats for pretty cheap (like a heavy wool pea coat for $40) at vintage stores here in Portland.

      Lovely Bicycle, who commented just before you, is also doing trades for knitted wool hats (she knits them, and gives them in trade for other stuff she might be interested in): http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2011/02/hats-off.html – I don’t know how many she’s doing, or if she’s already gotten as many requests as she wants at once, but it’d be worth asking at least :)

    • Dukiebiddle

      FWIW, Army surplus stores sell very affordable wool (or not wool – I think people oversell the necessity of wool AND special cycling gear for winter cycling. 95% of the time thick cotton or poly blends are fine in winter. If you’re not over layered you don’t sweat much in the winter) gloves, mittens, hats, socks, scarves, hats, etc.) 180s ear muffs that loop around the back of the head don’t obstruct most helmets. Bike shops sell under helmet winter beanies for about $15.

      • Redeyedtreefr0g

        !
        I’m so excited, I’m relatively crafty, and the suggestion to ask Ms Lovely Bike about a trade sparked a good idea too- maybe I could make my own things! I actually found a really neat store here and they might teach me to knit for free. The lady I met spins yarn from all kind of animals, I saw baby alpaca stuff, it was SO soft.

        Thanks for all the suggestions, everyone! I’m definitely keeping my eyes and ears open.

        • http://letsgorideabike.com LGRAB

          That’s cool! I started to learn how to knit last spring and had a grand plan for mittens, scarf and a hat, but then I got lazy and stopped practicing. I really enjoyed it, though, so maybe I’ll pick it back up one day.

        • http://letsgorideabike.com LGRAB

          That’s cool! I started to learn how to knit last spring and had a grand plan for mittens, scarf and a hat, but then I got lazy and stopped practicing. I really enjoyed it, though, so maybe I’ll pick it back up one day.

          • NancyB

            It would make a great bike field trip. Biking, knitting and mimosa’s by the lake! And socks are super fun.

        • NancyB

          Alpaca is a wonderful fiber but watch out, it’s very very warm and unless you’re knitting it in a really fine gauge might be too warm under a helmet. I love knitting, there’s lots of blogs for that too! K1P2.

  • Victoria See

    I forgot my helmet this morning, but I ran back upstairs to get it. The clincher for me is that as the days get shorter, my morning commute is almost entirely before sunrise—and if I’m hardly awake at that hour, I can’t expect much more from drivers. If I had sunshine at my back, it might have been a different story and I do always miss feeling the wind in my hair.

    • Inspiredcyclist.wordpress.com

      I love the feeling of the wind in my hair!

  • http://bicyclingsd.blogspot.com Sam

    To add to the growing chorus of unsolicited advice…don’t apologize for what you do or don’t do. The internet (and offline world) is filled with well meaning, insecure, pushy, opinionated people. Do what you feel like doing and what feels natural to you. So what if you ride helmet-less or feel a certain way about certain things – don’t apologize. This is your space. Own it!

  • http://twitter.com/Tantele Diane Foley

    Most of the accidents I know about, including my own, involved drivers that never saw the cyclist at all. When they do notice us, they appear to be quite polite whether we are wearing helmets or not. Maybe that’s just Rochester,NY

  • http://imaginarybicycle.wordpress.com Emma J

    I notice a difference when I ride with my plain brown helmet that I’ve tied a red polka-dot ribbon in a bow on the back rather than my faster looking “racing” helmet. I don’t know either whether it’s that the red bow catches their eye better or if it just looks more human.

  • http://www.raspberriesinwinter.blogspot.com Louise, Raspberries In Winter

    We don’t have a choice here in Australia, not wearing a helmet while riding is illegal. It’s a safety thing though so I don’t mind.

    • http://letsgorideabike.com LGRAB

      I would be so upset if Chicago had a law requiring me to wear a helmet, even though I usually wear one anyone.

      • mk

        but chicago has a law about wearing seatbelts. why are helmets on a bike any different than seatbelts in a car?

        • http://pin-hole.tumblr.com Dave

          Primarily the big thing for me, is that a law mandating helmet use (and even the very active promotion of helmets that exists now) is an easy victim-blaming mechanism. If a person on a bike gets hit by a person in a car, and they weren’t wearing a helmet, they get blamed for their injuries, regardless if they were at fault, even though there is little to no evidence that a helmet would do them much good in that situation anyway.

          Secondly, everyone’s situation varies. I have no issue if you want to wear a helmet, but don’t force me to because you feel you need one. I’m happy to give you the choice, and I’d appreciate having the favor returned :)

          Seat belts are a whole different issue – automobiles in general are forced (either by law or by road pressure) to travel the same speeds, over the same roads (so peoples circumstances are more similar), they are generally traveling at much higher speeds, and there is actual real data to show that seatbelts can be of great benefit in a high-speed collision, which is not the case for bicycle helmets.

  • http://lemondirgopie.blogspot.com/ Lauren

    OH MY GOD YOU’RE NOT WEARING A HELMET! HERESY! BURN THE WITCH!

    Just kidding. I have no say over whether or not you wear a helmet, and think you should do whatever makes you feel comfortable. Yay for bikes!

    Also, on an unrelated note, where’s that Pilen review? I got really excited about it but haven’t seen it yet. Did I miss it?
    Also, on another unrelated note, how’s the Velorbis Studine Balloon doing? You don’t post a lot about it anymore and it looks like a very interesting bike.

  • http://lemondirgopie.blogspot.com/ Lauren

    OH MY GOD YOU’RE NOT WEARING A HELMET! HERESY! BURN THE WITCH!

    Just kidding. I have no say over whether or not you wear a helmet, and think you should do whatever makes you feel comfortable. Yay for bikes!

    Also, on an unrelated note, where’s that Pilen review? I got really excited about it but haven’t seen it yet. Did I miss it?
    Also, on another unrelated note, how’s the Velorbis Studine Balloon doing? You don’t post a lot about it anymore and it looks like a very interesting bike.

    • http://letsgorideabike.com LGRAB

      :)

      I hope to post the Pilen review tomorrow. It’s on my extremely long to-do list. I haven’t been riding the Velorbis lately because she’s stuck in 3rd gear and I haven’t had time to take her into the shop. That’s also on my to-do list.

  • Dweendaddy

    I have been wearing a helmet less and less here in Nashville, recently. My argument to all of my critics (non bike riding, colleagues, mostly) is that I am doing it as a biking advocacy project – we will never see increases in biking if people think it is so dangerous that you have to ride a bike.
    As I was locking my bike the other day, dressed for work as I usually am in a shirt and tie, a woman came up to me and said, “You don’t see that often!” I couldn’t figure out if she meant someone in a tie on a bike, a person who looks like they could afford a car on a bike, or just a person on a bike!

    • Dweendaddy

      I meant “So dangerous that you have to wear a helmet”!

    • http://letsgorideabike.com LGRAB

      Ha, probably all three!

      When I visit Nashville, I ride without a helmet and always feel comfortable.

  • Dweendaddy

    I have been wearing a helmet less and less here in Nashville, recently. My argument to all of my critics (non bike riding, colleagues, mostly) is that I am doing it as a biking advocacy project – we will never see increases in biking if people think it is so dangerous that you have to ride a bike.
    As I was locking my bike the other day, dressed for work as I usually am in a shirt and tie, a woman came up to me and said, “You don’t see that often!” I couldn’t figure out if she meant someone in a tie on a bike, a person who looks like they could afford a car on a bike, or just a person on a bike!

    • Dweendaddy

      I meant “So dangerous that you have to wear a helmet”!

    • http://letsgorideabike.com LGRAB

      Ha, probably all three!

      When I visit Nashville, I ride without a helmet and always feel comfortable.

  • Michael

    I’ve seen the Mary Poppins Effect in my city in north Louisiana. I think it’s caused by a happy woman riding an upright bike. I doubt the helmet or lack of helmet makes much difference; I think motorists here simply like seeing that cyclist so much that they take the foot off the gas, and roll on by. Whatever the combination of causes, the MPE works wonders.

  • joaneofarc

    why do all people think, that they need a helmet because of the cars around them? In my opinion to wear a helmet or not is a personal choice. when considering if you want to ride with a helmet or not, you should not only think of the possibility of being hit by a car but also of the posibility of having an accident, like falling off the bike. You can also fall off your bike on a quiet road or on a protected bike lane. Last sunday I crashed my helmet when I was on my roadbike although there was no car around. The helmet saved me from having any injuries on my head. Two years ago, I got into a rail with my tire, felt off the bike and had serious injuries in my head. This happened in the city and a car driver behind me helped me to get off the street after the accident and called for the ambulance. It took me a few weeks to recover. That is the difference between wearing helmet or not and not if there are many cars around or not.

  • Love Designer

    I really like your post and that you are positive and happy and that you’ve inspired a normal, friendly courteous discussion that normally would be totally off-the-radar with extreme comments. Ride on and do it anyway you wish girl. Definitely don’t apologise for being you. PS, I also love the LOVE helmet.