Helmets increase risk-taking, study finds

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It might seem to be somewhat obvious but a new study by the Dept. of Psychology at Bath University has found that wearing a helmet increases rick-taking and sensation-seeking in adults.

Here’s the abstract in full:
Humans adapt their risk-taking behavior on the basis of perceptions of safety; this risk-compensation phenomenon is typified by people taking increased risks when using protective equipment. Existing studies have looked at people who know they are using safety equipment and have specifically focused on changes in behaviors for which that equipment might reduce risk. 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.

It’s good to have evidence of things that we inherently feel to be true – as in so many cases received wisdom is anything but – and certainly in mountain biking we are *much* more cautious riders when unhelmetted (which actually hasn’t happened in years – you just feel so *naked*).

The study used helmet and cap-mounted eye trackers on 15 male and 24 female helmetted riders, and on 19 males and 22 females who merely wore a cap. They were subjected to a series of laboratory tests which demonstrated increased risk taking and sensation seeking in helmetted riders as opposed to the becapped ones. Striking.

The study is by Tim Gamble and Ian Walker – a chap who has also shown that helmet-wearing can decrease the distance other road users give to cyclists when overtaking. It will no doubt fuel more debate on helmet safety on roads (and arguably elsewhere) – although we still take the opinion that if you MTB without one you’re an idiot.

Comments (11)

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    I’ve so many problems with that paper and trying to compare it to outdoor use. The conditions do not replicate cycling, or any helmet use activity.

    Removal of any inherent danger while sitting indoors negates the ability to transpose the results to outdoor use.

    They may as well have got people to play Mario Cart while wearing a seatbelt and not – then implied wearing a seatbelt can impact how you drive under normal conditions.

    Guff.

    Replicate it outdoors, take some EEG data and physiological data, then I’ll read your possibly valid paper.

    Really! Who funds this research!

    Wear a helmet, it’s safer
    Wear a seatbelt, it’s safer
    Look before crossing the road, it’s safer

    I don’t give a toss what statisticians suggest via research, basic logic says that things like helmets make cycling less dangerous. I’ve smashed 3 instead of my skull so I can back it up with my own independent research.

    I may see if I can get funding to demonstrate that statistically speaking you’ve got a pretty good chance of coming out of a single game of Russian roulette alive!

    “I may see if I can get funding to demonstrate that statistically speaking you’ve got a pretty good chance of coming out of a single game of Russian roulette alive!”

    I have a tonne of undergrads I will happily loan you for this research. Happy to lose a few.

    I shall continue to wear a helmet based on my own empirical research methodology where said item has proved its worth

    “Removal of any inherent danger while sitting indoors negates the ability to transpose the results to outdoor use.”

    Covered by “The results suggest that unconscious activation of safety-related concepts primes globally increased risk propensity.”?

    Those results suggest nothing more than wearing a helmet – while sat in a safe environment – may activate safety-related concepts towards increased risk propensity.

    They can not imply anything further than that.

    Before criticising it, it’s worth knowing that there are already papers testing helmet-led risk compensation in an environment where the helmet is considered relevant; eg:

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21418079 – “The findings are consistent with the notion that those who use helmets routinely perceive reduced risk when wearing a helmet, and compensate by cycling faster. They thus give some support to those urging caution in the use of helmet laws.”

    (Which is listed in the paper, along with a pile of others…)

    This is the first paper (AFAIK) that isolates the helmet from the environment, and the fact that a risk compensation effect still occurs is therefore of interest.

    Still doesn’t mean it’s scientifically valid.

    We’ve done similar work in our lab, but to call it anything else other than lab based is not correct.

    “I don’t give a toss what statisticians suggest via research, basic logic says…”

    Yeah; unfortunately, “basic logic”, or common sense, or whatever you want to call it, often isn’t actually right.

    It’s even less likely to be right when the “basic logic” view is generally entirely focused on a self-selecting set (ie the collisions) rather than the whole (ie the number of miles cycled or the number of hours spent on a bike), because that immediately excludes all sorts of environmental and behavioural factors that influence not just the severity of a collision but—more significantly—the probability of a collision occurring in the first place.

    I think few people would dispute that wearing a helmet is a decent idea for the sort of riding that’s enjoyed by most readers of this site, because thrill-seeking and elevated risk is an integral part of it.

    But that’s far from the only reason to ride a bicycle.

    Interesting reaction to this. The main thing that struck me when reading it is that it tells us about the perception of risk. There is some research, particularly in kids, about growing up in a risk free environment. I am massively paraphrasing here, but if you grow up in a risk averse culture the less safe you are. What it leads to is the lack of realization that there is a risk leads people to put themselves more danger. This results of this experiment show the result of feeling safe allows more risks to be taken. By the same token we know the risks and prefer to decrease the likely result of an accident by wearing a helmet. What we do not do is decrease the likelihood of having something happen. What can happen is that we potentially increase the severity of an accident by going faster/harder/doing more dangerous moves because we have the perception that we are safer. That is is the point of this type of research: it show that we may be safer because we do not take the risks we would if we felt safer dong that activity.

    If you are interested in such things then the document attached makes some very good points.

    http://www.gulbenkian.org.uk/pdffiles/–item-1266-223-No-fear-19-12-07.pdf

    I would definitely ride slower if I wasn’t wearing a helmet.. Proof by reverse logic, or something like that.

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