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Do bike helmets actually encourage risky riding?

When you were a kid, your mother probably reminded you time and again to wear your helmet when biking. You may have felt silly or embarrassed; you may have even put up a fight about it. However, you were told by adults everywhere that wearing your helmet would protect you in case you crashed.

No one disputes that helmets protect your skull - and more importantly, your brain - in the event of a bicycle accident. Several studies have demonstrated how bike helmets minimize the risk of serious head injury if you crash your bike or you're hit by another cyclist or a vehicle. However, a new study indicates safety helmets may actually encourage riders to engage in riskier behavior.

Helmets make us feel safer, but bolder

The study was conducted by psychological researchers at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom. The team gave one group of study participants baseball caps fitted with eye-tracking software. This was the control group. An identically sized group was given bike helmets fitted with the same equipment. All participants were then asked to play a computer game where they had to fill a digital balloon as much as they dared without popping it.

The researchers discovered that those with helmets were more likely to take risks, filling their balloons 30 percent more than those in baseball caps. In a summary of their findings, the research team surmised that the security offered by the helmets made participants bolder and more comfortable with risk.

Helmets still promote safety

Several other studies seem to support the argument that using safety gear makes people more prone to dare-devilish feats when mountain biking or skiing. But does correlation equal causation?

Researchers still disagree on this issue. Many researchers note that this phenomenon, known as "risk compensation," doesn't mean that safety gear is useless or unnecessary. Helmets still lower the risk of sustaining a catastrophic brain injury, for example. Studies on risk compensation merely highlight the fact that people tend to place more confidence in their protective gear then they probably should.

Keep your helmets: bicycle accidents can cause serious injuries

Being aware of risk compensation shouldn't prevent you from taking the necessary precautions to protect yourself when going out for a ride. In a contest between a moving car and a bicyclist, the car almost always "wins." Depending on the speed of the impact, cyclists can sustain catastrophic injuries, from multiple fractures to spinal cord damage and traumatic brain injury - especially in cases where the cyclist was not wearing a helmet.

If you or a loved one was involved in a serious bike accident, an attorney will be your best resource and strongest advocate. He or she can quantify the compensation you will need to achieve maximum recovery and help you pursue it by filing a personal injury claim.

Source: Mother Jones, "Does Wearing a Helmet Make Us Less Safe?" January 26, 2016

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