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Do Helmets Actually Make Cyclists Less Safe?

Are cycle helmets safer

There’s been a lot of talk in the cycling press about whether cycle helmet use is a good thing or not. While widely perceived to be on the majority of forums you might frequent, and certainly a good thing by tabloid journalists the evidence might point otherwise.

You’ve all heard it from other riders, “I fell off and a helmet saved my life”. Anecdotal evidence is strong, and it instills a lot of fear in us. What if I don’t wear a helmet? What if I crash? Strangely we never seem to hear the other, non sensational side of the coin “I fell off but didn’t bang my head, helmet use was inconsequential in my accident. But I did break my collarbone and hurt my knee etc.”.

That aside, there’s another aspect to helmet wearing that doesn’t get mentioned so often – risk compensation. It’s a well observed effect in the risk analysis world. A prime example of it is recognising that seatbelt usage doesn’t directly result in less motoring fatalities, but instead in more dangerous driving. This isn’t just in transport, it happens in all areas of society. (See The Hidden Danger of Seat Belts if you want to read further on this).

Well now a team of researchers from The University of Bath have observed this phenomena with people wearing cycling helmets. In controlled studies they took a group aged between 17 and 56 and got them to inflate an onscreen virtual balloon, with a reward given for keeping the balloon intact.

Half the group were wearing helmets while half the group wore baseball caps.


helmet risk study

Do helmets make cycling safer? credit: University of Bath


Interestingly the study found that over repeated trials the group wearing the protective headgear took more risks than their counterparts in cloth caps.

Now while this isn’t indicative or a rider’s propensity for haring down a cycle path in the wet at top speed compared to taking a bit more gingerly on the brakes it certainly provides food for thought when it comes to risky behaviour.

It’s not just the helmet wearing cyclists we’re thinking of here – we now wondering what changes in behaviour motorists undergo when overtaking a cyclist wearing a helmet compared to a cyclist wearing baseball cap.

If you want to read more of the study check out the findings here: Helmet wearing increases risk taking and sensation seeking


Bikesy top tip:

In our experience, if you want motorists to give you ample passing space, wear a long blonde wig under your helmet and put a child seat on you rear rack with a doll in it.

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