Driver psychology: A cycling survival guide to UK roads

driver psychology

A working knowledge of driver psychology should be the basis of any cycling survival guide.

Is it acceptable to cause harm to another person? To steal? To take a flexible approach to health and safety regulations to save a little time? According to research by psychologist Dr Ian Walker, it can depend on whether or not a car is involved.

‘Car brain’ is how Walker describes the cultural blind spot that makes people apply double standards when they think about driving. In his latest study, he demonstrates how motornomativity is real, measurable and pervasive.

Perhaps it goes a little way to explaining his earlier research that found drivers pass an average 8.5cm closer to cyclists wearing a helmet than those without.

He suggests the reason for these close passes could be down to how cyclists are perceived as a group:

“We know from research that many drivers see cyclists as a separate subculture, to which they don’t belong. As a result, they hold stereotyped ideas about cyclists, often judging all riders by the yardstick of the Lycra-clad street-warrior. This may lead drivers to believe cyclists with helmets are more serious, experienced and predictable than those without. The idea that helmeted cyclists are more experienced and less likely to do something unexpected would explain why drivers leave less space when passing.”

Incidentally, Walker also found motorists allowed more space when he wore a wig which suggested he was a woman.

The ‘Wobble’

Following on from Dr Walker’s research, it’s possible that riding straight and true could lead to drivers overtaking too close. Feigning inexperience by introducing the occasional gentle weave or wobble is an old trick to encourage motorists to stay on their toes.

City cyclist in the rain

Research suggests cyclists wearing everyday clothing may be treated differently by drivers

Lights – Steady, fixed, or both?

As we edge towards spring, it feels agonisingly close to a return to bike light-free commuting. In the meantime, the big question remains: Flashing or fixed? Before the advent of LED technology, static bicycle lights were pretty feeble.

However, fixed beam rear lights are now at least as bright as a motorcycle’s brake light. Given what we’re learning about driver psychology, might it be beneficial for a cyclist to be mistaken for a motorised road user in this way?

bicycle LED lights

Before the advent of LED technology, static bicycle lights were pretty feeble…there’s now a huge range of powerful and inexpensive lights to choose from

Whatever the case, flashing draws the eye and steady allows drivers to assess speed. In other words, why not enjoy the best of both worlds and run your bike with one of each?

High-vis: To wear or not to wear, that is the question

The suggestion that high-vis clothing isn’t all it’s crack up to be is counter-intuitive and doesn’t sit well with many. However, you need only ask a police officer about how frequently brightly coloured and illuminated traffic cars are struck by inattentive drivers to realise the benefits of high-vis are vastly overstated.

Worse still, a collective preoccupation with high-vis is pernicious and has lead to an institutionalised sense that vulnerable road users without it are to blame should they be killed or maimed by a motorised vehicle.  This is, of course, nonsense. Cyclists who want to stand out on the roads should ensure their road skills are up to scratch and ride assertively.

It’s also worth taking note of more findings by Dr Ian Walker. As part of his work on road user attitudes and stereotypes, and the roles of urban design and policy in affecting vulnerable road users’ safety, Dr Walker monitored cars as they passed cyclists wearing a variety of high-visibility and disruptive pattern clothing.

Ian Walker high-viz

He found that outfits in the study (with the exception of the one marked with the word ‘police’) were treated exactly the same, almost to the centimetre. The vest marked ‘polite’ was found to have no effect at all.

Ask an expert…

There’s no shame in asking for advice about cycling; God knows there are enough qualified drivers who could benefit from a refresher lesson or 10.

The cycling proficiency test of old has been replaced by Bikeability – a course currently offered in around half of English primary schools and to adults looking to learn how to ride a bike.

Luckily it’s never too late to learn. Adult cycle training is available across England, and instructors are happy to offer refresher courses to those returning to two wheels. It’s not currently funded by central government, although your local authority may offer a subsidy.

You can search for local cycle training providers for your yourself, your child or your family here

Cycle insurance

Cycling is one of life’s simple pleasures. A bike can be bought for very little, and you don’t need a licence or specialist equipment to enjoy it. Cycle insurance might not be mandatory like it is for drivers, but given 90 per cent of bike thefts go unsolved, it’s indispensable for many riders.

At its most basic, cycle insurance protects against theft. In fact, if you have house insurance, you may find you already have a rudimentary level of cover. However, in the way motorists don’t settle for third party, fire and theft cover, cyclists can benefit from a fully comprehensive cycle insurance policy.

autumn cyclist

Good cycle insurance protects against much more than theft

The ETA was the UK’s first provider of fully comprehensive cycle insurance. Every policy includes a long list of benefits as standard  including cover against accidental damage, vandalism, third party claims and breakdowns.

The ethical choice

The ETA was established in 1990 as an ethical provider of green, reliable travel services. Over 30 years on, we continue to offer cycle insurance , breakdown cover and mobility scooter insurance while putting concern for the environment at the heart of all we do.

The Good Shopping Guide judges us to be the UK’s most ethical provider.



  1. Dr John Heathcote


    I’m not clear that the research on clothing included older drivers with marginal eyesight, or just younger drivers. By the time my father stopped driving, he would not see at all a cyclist not wearing high-contrast clothing. Colour was increasingly irrelevant; his vision had become almost monochrome. He could still pass the required number plate reading test, given time.

    Wearing black on a dreich day or in poor light is asking for trouble.

  2. Peter Harrison


    Someone’s probably already thought of this but what about including a mandated cycling element to driving lessons? Those that can’t ride a bike could go on the back of a tandem with an experienced cyclist. Knowing what cycling in traffic is like from a cyclist’s point of view might change driver behaviour.

  3. Tom brown


    Drivers don’t like bikes on roads ? Simple only like us on cycle lanes which aren’t everywhere so .High visd each time..maybe get poll ice on high viss if police scare them off

  4. Mark


    That is of course exactly the point they are making: whose responsibility is that, the drab cyclist or the motorist with poor eyesight? What if the drab road user were a child crossing the road, is it their responsibility to be fully fluoro’d out? How about a dog or a cat?
    GCN recently did a very clear video on what benefits the right type of hi-vis actually can have, with Dr. Walker asking why we blame the cyclist when one vehicle gets too close/hits them, out of the hundreds that passed them with no issues on that same trip:

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