A new study has cast further doubt on Australian road rules by suggesting that wearing a bicycle helmet may increase dangerous behaviour.
That’s the extraordinary implication of a study published this week in respected journal Psychological Science.
It found that test subjects who wore helmets took more risks while playing a computer game than those who did not.
“Countries that have tried to solve the issue of cycling safety by making bicycle helmets compulsory, for example, might want to ask whether this is really the right approach for making people safe,” author Dr Tim Gamble said in a statement.
The test subjects, 80 adults aged 17-56, were split into two groups: baseball cap wearers and bicycle helmet wearers.
Both groups were seated at computers with cameras attached to their headwear and told to play a game where they pushed buttons to inflate an on-screen balloon as much as possible without popping it.
Neither group knew their headwear, not the computer game, was the point of the study. Instead, they were told the researchers wanted to track their eye movements.
The computer game awarded points for balloon inflation, but deducted all points if it burst, so players were encouraged to take risks, but not too many. At any time they could ‘cash out’ their points.
Interestingly, the helmet wearers took more risks (inflated the balloons with more air and cashed out later) than those who wore the caps.
From this, the researchers inferred that wearing a bicycle helmet made them feel safer when playing the game, even though it was irrelevant.
“The helmet could make zero difference to the outcome, but people wearing one seemed to take more risks in what was essentially a gambling task,” another of the authors, Dr Ian Walker, said in a statement.
Pushing safety beyond its limits
Their conclusion was bolstered by the fact that gender, anxiety levels and prior bicycling experience did not seem to affect the outcome. Somehow, wearing a helmet made the players take more gambles.
“If this laboratory demonstration of globally increased risk taking from localised protection were to be replicated in real settings, this could suggest that people using protective equipment against specific hazards might also be unduly inclined to take risks that such protective equipment cannot reasonably be expected to guard against,” the researchers wrote in the study.
Put simply, helmeted cyclists may ride in a more dangerous way, increasing the risk of injuries that helmets cannot prevent.
What’s new about this research is the idea that humans might compensate for safety equipment even if we aren’t consciously aware of it. Plenty of previous research has already suggested that riding with a helmet is more dangerous.
“Several studies in the past have looked at so-called ‘risk compensation’, suggesting that people might drive differently when wearing seatbelts, or make more aggressive American football tackles when wearing helmets,” Dr Walker said in a statement.
“This is the first suggestion that a safety device might make people take risks in a totally different domain.”
Yet more evidence
Real-world statistics support the counterintuitive idea that helmets hinder rather than help riders.
A study published in The British Medical Journal last year looked at hospitalisations in 11 countries with varying helmet laws, and found that requiring helmets did not lower injury rates.
Sydney University’s Professor Chris Rissel previously told The New Daily that his own research indicated that Australia’s helmet laws, introduced in the early 1990s, made “little difference”.
The Australian Cyclists Party is pushing for the wearing of helmets to eventually become voluntary.