As yet unpublished psychological experiment indicates that helmet wearers may have a higher overall level of danger

How can a helmet make cycling more dangerous? It seems obvious that a well-designed, foam-lined hard hat will soften the blow of some impacts. But hang on – a clever psychological experiment reveals you may actually be increasing your overall level of danger.

Psychologists at the University of Bath have now shown that people take more risks when they wear a helmet. Studies of injury data suggested this before but, for the first time, it’s been demonstrated in the lab.

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The experiments reveal that when you clip those straps together under your chin you make yourself feel safer. So, without realising it, you compensate by taking more chances on your bike and are rewarded by getting more of a thrill.

The bottom line is that you may be protecting your head but you are riding in a way that exposes your whole body to more danger and chance of injury.

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It’s a fascinating result that is bound to stir up the heated argument about helmets. In some parts of the world the law says cyclists must wear helmets. It’s like this in some Australian and Canadian states – and even Jersey in the Channel Islands mandates helmets for children.

This new study means there will be even more questions about those laws. What is the point of protecting someone’s head if it makes them ride more dangerously?

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Testing the theory of risk compensation among helmet wearers is a challenge. The volunteers cannot be allowed to know what is being tested in case it influences their behaviour. So Dr Tim Gamble and Dr Ian Walker of the University of Bath devised a fiendish way to stop them realising.

They lied to 80 human lab rats by telling them they were joining eye-tracking experiment which required them to wear a head-mounted camera. The camera was attached either to a helmet or a baseball cap and the choice of head-gear was made randomly.

Risk-taking was measured by allowing the volunteers to choose when to stop a balloon from being inflated. Those who wore helmets allowed it to be blown up more. The psychologists reason that, even though they were not in a dangerous situation, people without protective helmets were more cautious – taking fewer risks and not seeking as much excitement.


Bicycle helmet wearing can increase risk taking and sensation seeking in adults, by Tim Gamble and Ian Walker, to be published shortly in Psychological Science. 

Max Glaskin is an award-winning freelance journalist who tweets about cycling and science as @CyclingScience1 and is the author of Cycling Science (published by Frances Lincoln UK, Chicago University Press USA, and seven other languages).

  • Yes they are, risk compensation, observable in many areas of life. Written up in full here http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1564465,00.html

    Interestingly the full report from Gamble and Walker is out today, they analysis of it proves interesting http://bikesy.co.uk/features/knowledge/do-helmets-actually-make-cyclists-less-safe/

  • Kevin Herbert

    So your Masters was in stats analysis then………says it all really.

    And pray tell at what university did you study?…or was it online via a US college!!!!!

  • burttthebike

    Why should I have controlled for a variable that was of no interest or relevance to what I was investigating? But from memory, the more experienced riders were less likely to view cycling as particularly risky and less likely to wear a helmet. I could have controlled for any number of other variables which might be more relevant, like how much helmet propaganda they had been subjected to, but I would have had to do another dissertation for that.

    BTW, kinisieological includes psychological.

  • Mike Williams

    I was hypothesizing about the physiological/kinisieological not psychological. But I am curious how you controlled for different experience levels in your subjects (my guess would be that people who cycled a lot had more falls and close calls which would increase their risk assessment). This seems to be a problem with helmet studies — there is a huge difference in cyclist experience and it is not normally distributed — and the study doesn’t properly account for it.

  • burttthebike

    Oops, sorry, I misread your original post.

  • Stevo

    How? I wasn’t wearing a helmet. The car drivers didn’t see me. It was just bad luck.

  • burttthebike

    Yes they do. John Adams examined what happened when the seat belt law came in and found that there was an overall increase in deaths, with cyclists, pedestrians and back seat passengers all suffering higher risk.

    The government commissioned research about seat belts before they introduced the law, the Isles Report, but although it was completed before the vote in parliament, it has never been released because it found that overall risk increased.

    There was also an experiment with two fleets of vehicles, one with every imaginable safety device, and the other just standard cars, with the assumption that the first group would be far less risky. In fact, the risks were the same for both groups, because the drivers of the “safer” cars took more risks.

  • burttthebike

    My MSc dissertation looked at whether people overestimated the risks of cycling and the benefits of helmets and whether those views were linked. They were and people who thought that cycling was high risk also thought that helmets were highly beneficial, and the opposite for people who thought that cycling was low risk.

  • burttthebike

    I think you may have inadvertently proved the researchers argument that wearing a helmet makes you take more risks.

  • Peter Robinson

    Old Tour de France watchers tell us that the crashes have increased markedly since helmets were required. This makes it then hard to get rid of the law. But before the law there were hardly any head injuries and certainly no deaths except arguably one who was hit on a part of his head not covered by the helmet. 28 spectator deaths, 1 official,1 drowning on his day off, 1 from drug induced heart failure, 1 going over a ravine but no verifyable head injury deaths that would have been prevented by a helmet. Interestingly, here in Australia, a common retort to someone demanding you put your helmet on is “I’m not exactly in the Tour de France!”.

  • FPCyclist

    Rubbish.

  • khisanth

    Nope, I certainly do not take risks or behave differently with a helmet on. I put it on to help protect my head,thats it.

  • Stevo

    I wrote “several”, not “many”. Not sure what strategy change would help really against such random things as oncoming cars on the wrong side of the road or overtaking cars that pull in while they are next to you.

  • Paul Betts

    Yes

  • Paul Betts

    Continental pro`s were blackmailed into wearing them, they staged sit down strikes about it. There was no problem.

  • Paul Betts

    If you`ve been hit many times i would seriously review your strategy. Ive been cycling for best part of my 59 years and not been hit once !

  • Stevo

    Statistics have nothing to do with it. Sometimes helmets won’t help after a collision with a car; sometimes they will.

  • Ed

    Amateur race. Helmets were optional for all.
    I wear a helmet now.

  • richardremlap

    You’re just one statistic out of how many?

  • Stevo

    They can be lot of use in a high-speed crash. It just depends on how hard you bang your head. If you plough head-first into a wall at 30 mph, a helmet probably won’t save you. If you side along a road at 30 mph, bumping your head along the road surface in the process, a helmet could make an enormous difference.

  • Stevo

    Was that a professional event, or were even amateurs allowed to ride without helmets in those days?

  • Stevo

    Why do you say that a helmet will do little to protect a rider if you are hit by another vehicle? I’ve been hit by cars several times, and nearly every time I hit the road with my head. I am certain a helmet would have helped me.

  • Mike Williams

    A hypothesis: maybe we overestimate the risk of head injury in a cycling crash? There is a recent paper in the BMJ…I have problems with the study itself but it uses some interesting data on hospitalizations resulting from cycling accidents in Canada >> head injuries account for only about 1/4 of them. This is less than I would have guessed so either helmets are really doing their job and/or possibly the human body is good at protecting your brain (e.g. a tuck-and-roll reflex that sacrifices your torso to minimize skull impact).

  • Phil Stone

    Thanks for that, I found the list your right that since the start of the century that was fairly regular cycling crash deaths, 1913 looked like a bad year to be on the track with 6 in the same year, but also the period I remember of the 80s – 90s there was actually zero deaths between 88 & 95, no helmets at all for the most part…why was this? 100s of 1000s of miles worth of extremely high risk, high speed races & training rides with plenty of crashes..

  • TheMrJones

    There was data showing declines in driver injuries but increases in passenger injuries following the first appearance of seat belts. Then there was no seat belts in the back of cars. There may be evidence that seat belts and air bags save lives inside cars now but if drivers are using up the benefit by taking more risks, then it’s other road users whose risk is increased.

  • Phil Stone

    cheers for that https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_professional_cyclists_who_died_during_a_race The numbers are incredibly low from the time I remember watching the sport, between 1988 & 1995 zero fatalitys from all the pros training every day & all those races with huge pile ups…I guess it was just luck or something to do with the quality of the riders in the 80s early 90s? 1913 looked like a bad year to be doing track!

  • mattoid

    They are already taking more risks locked away in their biscuit tins. But you point is very valid.

  • Mike Williams

    Wikipedia has a list and those from post war to the helmet mandate in 2003 are a lot of head injuries. I just finished the book on Coppi and his kid brother fell during a race, finished the race, died the next day.

  • Mike Williams

    As I understand it Weylandt didn’t die from a head injury…he suffered massive trauma from the impact that would have killed him with or without a helmet. I forgot about Casarotto in what was head trauma.

  • binghammer

    I once asked a friend of mine if he took more risks when cycling if he was wearing his helmet. “Sure I do,” he replied. It’s called “risk compensation” and this kicks in whenever we begin to rely on so-called safety devices – helmets, air bags, braking systems, you name it, every single gizmo supposed to take the stress out of taking to the road!

  • Za Dinardo

    Are those drivers with their seatbelts on taking more risks?

  • J1

    You can experience G-Force that can kill you without riding off a cliff.
    You should brush up on your cycling history. Unfortunately there’s been around 5 deaths in professional cycling since 2003, the one that most will remember is Wouter Weylandt in the 2011 Giro.

    I’m all for helmets anyway, more things to colour co-ordinate.

  • Phil Stone

    how many Pro riders were dying from head injuries before helmets became mandatory? I know of only two in recent times & one of them (Wouter Weylandt) had a helmet! Go back to the 80s 70s 60s 50s I dont remember reading about the epidemic of fatal crashes in pro cycling?

  • Nigel Rue

    This research confirms what I observed when I was a motorcycle instructor. Many students acted like, and said they felt perfectly safe when dressed in leathers and a helmet. I used to try to instill in them that having an accident was liable to hurt. I don’t think the message ever fully sunk in.

  • Mike Williams

    This is a “psychology” experiment and given this pseudo-science’s poor record, I’d wait until someone reproduces it (ref. The Reproducability Project: Psychology).

  • Ed

    Many years ago (in the 1970s) when we only had leather “hairnet” helmets and they were optional in road races. I was on the IOM waiting for my race (Mannin Veg) to start, conditions were foul and some races (International and Viking Trophy) had already started. Listening to the race commentary relaying news of riders sliding off in the events made me nervous. I hadn’t got my helmet and I decided not to start my race. If I had my helmet with me, I would have started – and maybe crashed!
    So I avoided risk, by not having a helmet.

  • Mike Williams

    They are designed to pass the 2-meter drop test…which is more distance than the force of gravity can act on your head unless you ride off a cliff. As for their utility in high speed crashes, given how many there are in the pro peleton and the rarity of fatalities (zero since helmets became mandatory?) I think they are proving their value.

  • Craigy

    Don’t agree with the results of this experiment at all. I wear a helmet but I am always very conscious of the fact that; 1) there is always very unpredictable traffic moving around me and 2) the rest of my body is not protected other than the clothing that I’m wearing. Whether I’m wearing a helmet or not, getting hit by a car or falling off at 20mph will still hurt. A helmet will do nothing to stop me from breaking my bones which I want to avoid as much as possible. Therefore I always do all that I can to make sure I ride as safely as possible and stay on my bicycle.

  • J1

    Helmets are only designed to protect you from a stationary fall, they’re not much use in a high speed crash, it’s the G force that kills you, can’t do much about that.

  • markholds

    Of course a helmet won’t help you if a car hits you at 50 mph, but I think it can reduce injuries in many minor, but nonetheless painful accidents. So I think it’s worth wearing one.
    Some cyclists might take more risks when they are wearing a helmet, but I am made very aware of my vulnerable position as a cyclist too often for that to affect me much.

  • Cycling Science

    Yes, Adam, it is an intuitive conclusion for many people but what’s new is that nobody before has backed up their intuition in a scientific experiment for bicycle helmets.

  • Adam Beevers

    And what’s new? It’s a very old discussion with mountain bikers wearing body armour. The natural instinct is to do more if we feel safer.

  • richardremlap

    I’ve also read that motorists leave less room when overtaking someone wearing a helmet. The Chris Boardman video says it all though. A helmet is a good safety device when mountain biking or road racing but for bicycle commuting the biggest risk is being hit by a vehicle, and in that event a helmet will do little to protect the rider, although a Hövding helmet appears to have benefits. For real protection the rider would need an inflatable “air-bag-style” jacket as well but the costs and inconvenience of all these safety devices would deter many would be cyclists. Far better to remove the cause, ie. educate the motorists.

  • markholds

    I hate this sort of experiment. The results could be explained in many different ways, and who knows whether the reactions would be the same in an actually dangerous situation as in this artificial, non-dangerous situation that’s got nothing to do with cycling.