The Paradoxical Ways Bike Helmets Make Us Less Safe

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Wearing a bicycle helmet may not always lead to a safer ride, a new study finds. In fact, according to research recently published in Psychological Science, it might lead you to take more risks than you normally would because you feel safer while wearing that extra equipment.

A pair of researchers from the University of Bath in the UK wanted to test how simply wearing a helmet affects people's behavior. They gave 80 adult participants helmets or baseball hats and informed them that both were just mounts for an eye-tracking device. The participants thought the study was about eye-tracking, thus downplaying the safety aspect of wearing a helmet. Then, they introduced several lab tests of risk-taking and sensation-seeking behaviors. For instance, one test required people to inflate a virtual balloon in exchange for fictional currency—the more they inflated, the more money they got, but if the balloon popped, they received nothing.

Participants who were wearing a helmet were more willing to take risks and tested higher on questionnaires about sensation seeking than people who were wearing baseball caps. They were more daring, even though the helmets had absolutely no bearing on the risks involved—a helmet cannot protect you from a virtual balloon. The researchers suggest that this might be the result of social priming, which could lead people to subconsciously connect wearing a helmet to being safer. While the lab tests might not be completely applicable to riding an actual bike, the results do indicate that safety equipment might subtly shift behavior toward risk.

Previous studies have found that people who regularly wear helmets behave more consciously when they ride without a helmet. And it’s not just cyclists who change their behavior when bike helmets are involved: A 2007 study found that drivers gave cyclists more passing room if they were not wearing a helmet—suggesting that drivers, too, might take greater risks with a cyclist’s safety if the biker appears slightly more protected.

Meanwhile, the impact of bike safety laws that make wearing a helmet mandatory is highly debated. Wearing a helmet is undoubtedly safer than not, but because other factors can affect biking safety—having more cyclists on the road and improving road infrastructure to support biking, for example—an intent focus on getting people to wear helmets may sometimes come at the expense of more systematic safety measures.