The DfT Cyclist Safety study, risk compensation and cycle helmets



We hope to be writing an extensive review of the Department for Transport’s major programme of studies carried out in 2008, 2009 and 2010 on Cyclist Safety. We think that there are a number of serious problems with what was produced and how the programme was structured – most notably the emphasis on the work on helmets, which we see as being fundamentally misconceived and executed.

 While preparing this I was reminded of some DfT-commissioned evidence-review of the (in)effectiveness of road safety education: The Development of Children’s and Young People’s Attitudes to Driving: A Critical Review of the Literature by Kevin Durkinand Andy Tolmie

 “Children may learn to respond to wearing safety equipment by increased risk compensation (Morrongiello, B. A., Lasenby, J. and Walpole, B. (2007) Risk compensation in children: why do children show it in reaction to wearing safety gear? Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 28(1), 56–63). This is a familiar phenomenon to analysts of road-user behaviour. Risk homeostasis theory (Wilde, 1998) holds that individuals maintain an acceptable level of risk and that, if the risk is moderated in some way (e.g. by the intervention of a safety restraint) then they adjust some other aspect of their behaviour to restore the acceptable risk level. While this model is controversial and it is uncertain how extensively children’s behaviour conforms to the predictions of risk homeostasis theory (cf. Pless, I. B., Magdalinos, H. and Hagel, B. (2006) Risk-compensation behaviour in children: Myth or reality? Archives of Pediatrics and adolescent Medicine, 160(6), 610-614. ), it is very plausible that patterns of balancing risk/preferred behaviour are established in the course of development.

Morrongiello et al. (2007) found that children (ages 8 to 11) offered a range of reasons to explain why wearing a helmet when bike riding would be protective, all of which indicated a risk compensation bias. These included suggestions that they were more competent when wearing safety gear (‘Because when you are wearing a helmet you have more balance’), or that they were invulnerable (‘Because you just wouldn’t fall off your bike or get injured’), or that the protection would reduce injury severity in the face of an accident (‘Because if I fall, I wouldn’t get hurt as much if I wore a helmet’).

Interestingly, Morrongiello, B. A. and Major, K. (2002) Influence of safety gear on parental perceptions of injury risk and tolerance for children’s risk taking. Injury Prevention, 8, 27–31 found that parents tended towards the same biases. Thus, parents allowed their children to engage in greater risk-taking in activities such as bicycling when wearing safety gear than when not, and the parents’ explanations showed that they assumed the gear would fully protect their child – including even parts of the body not covered (e.g. a bike helmet would protect limbs) – and prevent injury regardless of the child’s level of risk taking. This optimistic, almost magical, reasoning seems to be shared by children and their parents during periods that may be formative in the development of safety orientation. (my emphasis)

And yet other sections of the report still make the assumption that it’s important to persuade children to wear helmets…!