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Do bike or ski helmets encourage risky behavior?

The famous car chase scene in the movie "Bullitt" starts with Steve McQueen carefully fastening his seat belt. It is just a lap belt, of course, but the movie was made in 1968. At any rate, that moment, that click of the buckle, signals the viewer that something dangerous and exciting is about to happen. Before McQueen takes his foot off the brake, the audience is on the edge of their seats.

Would the movie have been as exciting without the seat belt? As audience members, do we see that seat belt and know that McQueen is about to do something crazy dangerous?

In the context of personal injury law, risk homeostasis theory tells us that a person will take more risks when he is wearing safety equipment than when he is not. Researchers in the United Kingdom backed up the theory with a study involving bicycle helmets and baseball caps.

The headgear was not the stated focus of the trial as far as the participants were concerned. They were told to blow up a balloon, taking it to its maximum without allowing it to pop. The participants wearing helmets were much more willing to risk the balloon popping: Their balloons were inflated an average of 30 percent more than the baseball cap group's balloons -- even though the caps and helmets had no relation to the inflation of the balloons. Those helmets could not ever save those balloons, but the people wearing the helmets still took more risks.

Their conclusion -- the idea that "we respond subconsciously to the presence of safety equipment" -- is not universally embraced by psychologists or safety experts. As far back as 2002 researchers were debunking the theory, especially in relation to motor vehicle safety devices. We hear time and again that seat belts save lives, and a 2012 study showed that ski helmets not only decrease the frequency of injuries but decrease the severity of injuries as well.

Perhaps the lesson should be that a helmet alone will not spare a reckless driver or daredevil skier from injury. Caution and experience help. Or, as a risk management professional puts it, wear a helmet, but ski or bike as if you weren't wearing one.

Source: Mother Jones, "Does wearing a helmet make us less safe?" Jenny Luna, Jan. 26, 2016

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