Wearing a bike helmet may make you more likely to take risks and get into accidents

Look out below!
Look out below!
Image: Reuters/Stefano Rellandini
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New research from the UK casts a controversial new light on the matter of cycle helmet safety, because it says when you strap a helmet on, you feel more like taking risks. And taking risks on a bike could mean getting into accidents.

Wearing a cycle helmet sounds like a straightforward, common sense, all-around great idea because it protects your head and its precious brainy cargo during accidents. Legal and safety bodies around the world have been pushing this idea for a long time, and now if you go for a ride, you’re likely to automatically strap one on. But like many “common sense” ideas, cycle helmet safety may not actually be that simple. University of Bath researchers decided to apply some science to the matter, and looked at how people behave when they are wearing a cycle helmet versus when they’re not.

To disguise the study and prevent the experiment itself from changing how the participants behaved, the Bath team pretended the investigation was about eye tracking. They put a cycle helmet mounted with some electronics on half the group and a similar-looking baseball cap on the other half. Participants were then asked to take part in a simulated risk experiment: They could inflate an animated balloon on a monitor, earning more points as time passed. Just like a gameshow, they could bank their points at any time, but they lost everything if the simulated balloon popped. The experiment was repeated 30 times.

The surprising result was that participants were far more likely to take risks and pop the balloon when wearing the helmet than the baseball cap. This held true even though wearing the helmet could contribute absolutely nothing to the safety of the wearer, given the nature of the experiment. The idea of being protected may have led to feelings of being overly-safe, so that taking a risk was more acceptable.

The Bath team notes that this shouldn’t be taken as evidence that you shouldn’t wear safety gear, and it’s important to remember that this experiment didn’t actually involve anyone riding a bicycle. But it does indicate that wearing a cycle helmet, or indeed other headgear or protective clothing, may lead people to take more risks and thus potentially to experience more accidents.

Opponents of cycle helmet helmet legislation have long argued this position, and now it seems their arguments make scientific sense. Conversely, the pro-cycle helmet lobby has a lot of momentum, and there’s already a lot of technology invested invested in helmet safety.