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Wearing a cycle helmet leads to more risk-taking, study finds

Participants in University of Bath study weren’t told its true purpose

A study from two researchers at the University of Bath has found that people wearing cycle helmets are more likely to take risks and be sensation-seekers than those wearing baseball caps.

Co-authored by Ian Walker and Tim Gamble of the university’s Department of Psychology, the study suggests that there could be “more extreme unintended consequences of safety equipment in hazardous situations” than was previously thought to exist.

Some subterfuge was involved, the authors admit.

“Participants were (falsely) told they were taking part in an eye-tracking study so we could exploit the fact the SensoMotric Head-mounted Eye Tracking Device comes with both a bicycle helmet [Abus HS-10 S-Force Peak] and a baseball cap as its standard mounting solutions,” they said.

Nor were bicycles involved, so the subjects – 80 people aged between 17 and 56 years – were unaware that the true purpose of the study was to assess differences in behaviour depending on the specific headgear worn.

The researchers had participants complete a computer-based laboratory measure named the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART) under which they say ”the helmet could do nothing to change risk,” and they “also measured sensation seeking and anxiety as possible explanatory variables for any effect.”

In the BART task, subjects would press a button to cause an animated balloon on the computer screen to inflate and with each inflation, the amount of fictional currency they earned would grow.
They stood to lose any gains when the balloon burst, which would happen at some random point between one and 128 inflations, but they could bank their earnings at any point.

Each participant undertook the test 30 times, with the mean number of pumps made on occasions the balloon did not burst giving their mean score – higher for those who sought to maximise their gains, and lower for people who adopted a more conservative approach.

After completing all the tests, they were told about what the test was really designed to measure, asked not to tell others about that, and asked whether they cycled and if so, whether they wore a helmet while doing so.

People wearing helmets had a mean risk taking score of 40.40 against those who wore caps, at 31.06, while mean sensation seeking scores stood at 23.23 and 18.78, respectively, with the authors adding that “these effects cannot be explained by the helmet affecting anxiety.”

They also cited prior research which established that “helmets do not affect cognitive performance in demanding laboratory tasks, meaning the results cannot be attributed to this either.”

In conclusion, they said: “The practical implication of our findings, in which risk-taking changed in a global way when the helmet was worn, might be to suggest more extreme unintended consequences of safety equipment in hazardous situations than has previously been thought.”

They acknowledged that previous studies had also concluded “that safety equipment might make people take risks against which that equipment offers protection.”

They added: “If this laboratory demonstration of globally increased risk-taking arising from localized protection were to be replicated in real settings, this could suggest people using protective equipment against specific hazards might also be unduly inclined to take risks against which that protective equipment cannot reasonably be expected to help.

“This is not to suggest the safety equipment will necessarily have its specific utility nullified, but rather to suggest there could be changes in behaviour wider than previously envisaged,” they concluded.

Previous research by Dr Walker into bicycle helmets includes a 2006 study in which he sought to determine whether motorists give more space to cyclists wearing helmets than those who do not – he found that bare-headed riders benefited from greater passing distances – famously donning a blonde wig to assess whether gender was a factor too.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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