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Could wearing a bike helmet backfire?

Cycling involves risks. Collisions or falls can lead to devastating head injuries, which account for an astonishing three-quarters of fatalities among cyclists.

Helmet use has long been regarded as a surefire way to protect riders. And there's data to back that up: According to at least one study, helmets reduce fatalities among cyclists by 10 to 16 percent. If you're involved in an accident, chances are you're far better off wearing a helmet than not.

An unintended outcome?

For cyclists who end up in accidents, helmets can mean the difference between life and death. But could helmet use on the whole lead to an increase in cycling accidents?

A recent study suggests that may be the case. The study, conducted by researchers at a British university and published in the journal Psychological Science, found that helmet use can actually increase risk-taking behaviors, lending credence to the idea of subconscious "risk compensation." Compared with those who weren't wearing helmets, study participants with helmets were more willing to push the envelope.

While not focused specifically on cycling, these findings certainly have implications for cyclists. They suggest that safety is much more complex than just donning protective gear. Another recent study supports that proposition. It found that drivers are twice as likely to get closer (on average, three inches closer) to cyclists who are wearing helmets.

Don't throw out your helmet just yet

There's no doubt that helmets play a life-saving role in many situations. These recent studies simply confirm the common-sense notion that helmets don't make cyclists invincible. Safe riding practices boil down to observing a wide range of smart habits such as:

  • Using bike lanes where available
  • Obeying all traffic laws
  • Using appropriate hand signals to alert other drivers of your intentions
  • Using lights, reflectors and brightly colored clothing, especially at night
  • Maintaining your bike in good working order
  • Never wearing headphones or earbuds while riding
  • Never riding under the influence of alcohol or drugs

The answer isn't to throw out your protective gear. Instead, just remember that safe cycling involves much more than a single piece of equipment.

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