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Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute

The Helmet Update

Volume 34, #1, January 29, 2016

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Study blames bicycle helmets for risk compensation

There is a new study in the journal Psychological Science by two University of Bath researchers. The study is titled "Wearing a Bicycle Helmet Can Increase Risk Taking and Sensation Seeking in Adults." The study tracked people either wearing caps or helmets while blowing up a virtual balloon on a computer screen. The researchers found that those in bicycle helmets took more risk that the balloon would burst, and concluded that "Here, we demonstrated that risk taking increases in people who are not explicitly aware they are wearing protective equipment; furthermore, this happens for behaviors that could not be made safer by that equipment. In a controlled study in which a helmet, compared with a baseball cap, was used as the head mount for an eye tracker, participants scored significantly higher on laboratory measures of both risk taking and sensation seeking. This happened despite there being no risk for the helmet to ameliorate and despite it being introduced purely as an eye tracker. The results suggest that unconscious activation of safety-related concepts primes globally increased risk propensity."

For the experiment to be valid, the helmet wearers had to feel they were more safe than the cap wearers, sitting before a computer screen. But safe from what? There was no risk to them from the pop of the virtual balloon on the screen. We can't explain the results, but don't think the experiment demonstrated anything significant about risk compensation.

Imagine the consequences for seatbelt use if this conclusion were valid! Risk compensation is a real phenomenon, but has its limits. We think that the authors are stretching too much with their conclusion in this case. In any event, you will see it cited in coming years as "study proves bike helmets make riders take more risk and seek more sensation."

One of the authors is Ian Walker, who previously published a now-discredited study of passing clearances concluding that cars leave less room when passing cyclists in helmets.

2016 Note: This study concludes: "After explaining the rationale behind risk compensation (aka risk homeostasis theory) (RHT), I provide examples of RCT studies to explain why I believe they should be rejected. The main basis for my rebuttal, however, rests on data that show steady declines in unintentional injury mortality, which, according to RCT, should not have occurred. There are many other reasons for rejecting this theory, and it seems that the time has come for the debate to finally be concluded."

2017 Note: the Walker study was cited a year later as the basis for a 2017 article in Forbes on risk compensation. We reviewed it again and found this phrase: "Our findings initially appear different from those of some other studies." True words, and that section of the journal article is worthy of review before people mindlessly repeat the abstract. The other studies actually had people taking risks.

2019 Note: this study reviewed many other risk compensation studies and found that "Eighteen studies found no supportive evidence helmet use was positively associated with risky behaviour, while three studies provided mixed findings, i.e., results for and against the hypothesis. For many of these studies, bicycle helmet wearing was associated with safer cycling behaviour. Only two studies conducted from the same research lab provided evidence to support the risk compensation hypothesis. In sum, this systematic review found little to no support for the hypothesis bicycle helmet use is associated with engaging in risky behaviour."