Protective gear and risk compensation

Risk compensation isn’t limited to high-risk sports like skydiving. In fact, some of the most unlikely people take the most unlikely chances simply because they believe risks have been offset—such as parents:

Parents and children and risk compensation After regulation demanded medicine bottle caps and lighters have child-proof devices  research found that “…that many parents left the caps off bottles, and the net effect that was observed from this safety device introduction was that there was no evidence of a significant beneficial impact.” It also found that up to 10 percent of parents would leave lighters where children could get them as a result raising the risk of setting a fire rather than lowering it.

Other studies[i] have found that parents allowed their children to take more risks if they were wearing protective gear because they assumed that the gear provided complete protection for the children. Children in another study went faster and “behaved more recklessly” when they had gear on.[ii]

Bicyclists, soccer players and in-line skaters British research by Dr. Ian Walker found that people drove closer to bicyclists if the bicyclists wore a helmet and was male.[iii]

And a study on soccer found that when the kicker and goalie wore protective gear the kicker moved closer to the goalie but didn’t when protective gear wasn’t worn. Other studies have shown that rugby headgear can influence players to tackle harder. [iv]

While another study found that serious injuries were more frequent among adult in-line skaters  who wore safety gear about half the time rather than among those who didn’t wear safety gear at all.[v]

As one of the studies on children’s and parents’ behavior stated the “… use of safety gear may result in misperceptions of injury risk and this can produce unwanted effects. Specifically, individuals may assume that safety gear completely protects against all injury, and therefore the need to be cautious no longer exists, resulting in greater risk taking or increased tolerance for risk taking. This phenomenon is known as risk compensation.”[vi]

Boaters Experience—and training—has also been found to have the opposite effect as a study of 10,000 boating accidents over 5 years[vii] found: Older, more experienced boaters were less likely to wear a personal floatation device (PFD)—and  so were their passengers. And if they did wear a PFD, they were more likely to increase their alcohol consumption. PFD use did increase in windy conditions—indicating the operators perceived higher risk—it decreased at night indicating they didn’t see darkness as increasing risk.

Iow, protective gear—including helmets—is associated with risk compensation but with a twist. In some cases, it’s the participants wearing the gear that take increased risk. In other cases it’s someone else who takes greater risks  (other drivers) because someone else is wearing gear or (we’ll get to the role of experience and training in the next entry).

Risk compensation by ordinary people in ordinary activities is normative Iow, in many activities and with a wide range of people who are not associated with risk-taking behaviors (such as parents and recreational boaters) automatically take on more risk (or allow those they are responsible for to do so) because of something that’s worn—and often with a false understanding of what that gear can actually do. Iow, risk perception changes—and not necessarily in conscious ways—by the presence of protective gear.

Which makes sense in a way: because children are wearing gear, they are less likely to be hurt playing soccer, running an obstacle course or bicycling—and so are adults.

When it comes to protective gear, risk compensation is a normative behavior for  ordinary people, ordinary objects and ordinary risks. When people believe they are safer they act in ways that put them more at risk.

The question, then, would seem to be not if protective gear risk compensation occurs in motorcycling but how much.

ATGATT and risk compensation? It would be no surprise, then, if motorcyclists who wear helmets do so as well since even parents who are dedicated to their children’s safety do so. And, as we discovered in the entries on seat belts, motorcyclists are more likely to voluntarily wear helmets than drivers are to wear seat belts. Nationally, even in states without helmet laws, over 50% of riders do wear helmets according to the National Occupant Protection Use Survey. Iow, motorcyclists perceive and believe in the protection helmets offer.

A survey of over 130 riders 40 and older found that 83 percent said they wore a helmet all the time and 80% said they wore gear all the time. Fifty-nine percent of respondents thought helmets were either completely or significantly/very effective at reducing injury and 49 percent thought they were completely or very effective at reducing death.

Yet the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) claims that helmets are only 25 percent effective in reducing injury and 37 percent effective in preventing death.

Clearly, motorcyclists, like parents, tend to have an exaggerated and erroneous belief in just how effective helmets are.

Consuming the safety margin But the safety margin that protective gear gives participants is predicated on all else staying exactly the same: they are only safer because of gear if they take no more risks than they had previously or the situation becomes no more dangerous.  Iow, helmets are only 25 percent and 37 percent effective if the situation hasn’t become more dangerous (more difficult roads or poor road surface, heavier traffic, etc.)  and if the rider hasn’t taken on more risk (higher speeds, shorter gaps, late braking, etc.).

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much to consume the safety margin gear and helmets offer—particularly since helmets can only protect against injuries caused by exterior forces. Internal injuries (coup contra coup, axial rotation, etc.) can be far more debilitating but cannot be prevented by helmets. But no one can predict which kind of crash they’ll have and what kind of head injury will result.

Others can consume our safety margin In a related way, just as the study on soccer players and the one on bicyclists wearing helmets others will take on more risk because the participants were wearing protective gear. Iow, even if the one wearing protective gear is minimizing risks, others can consume the safety margin the gear gives by acting in more aggressive ways because they believe the one wearing the gear is better protected than they are in reality. It matters a great deal, then what both participants and outsiders believe about helmet/gear effectiveness.

And that’s the subject of the next entry.


[i] Mok, D., Gore, G., Hagel, B., Mok, E., Magdalinos, H., Pless, B., 2004. Risk compensation in children’s activities: a pilot study. Paediatr. Child Health 9, 327–330.

Morrongiello, B.A., 1997. Children’s perspectives on injury and close-call experiences: sex differences in injury-outcome processes. J. Pediatr. Psychol. 22, 499–512.

Morrongiello, B.A., Major, K., 2002. Influence of safety gear on parental perceptions of injury risk and tolerance or children’s risk taking. Injury Prevent. 8, 27–31.

Morrongiello, B.A., Rennie, H., 1998. Why do boys engage in more risk taking than girls? The role of attributions, beliefs, and risk appraisals. J. Pediatric Psychology. 23, 33–43.

[ii] Morrongiello, Barbara A. and Beverly Walpole, Jennifer Lasenby Understanding children’s injury-risk behavior: Wearing safety gear can lead to increased risk taking. Accident Analysis and Prevention 39 (2007) 618–623.

[iii] Walker, Ian. Drivers overtaking bicyclists: Objective data on the effects of riding position, helmet use, vehicle type and apparent gender. Accident Analysis & Prevention Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 417-425.

[iv] Braun, C., Fouts, J., 1998. Behavioral response to the presence of personal protective equipment. Hum. Factors Ergon. Soc. 2, 1058–1063. McIntosh, A S. Risk compensation, motivation, injuries, and biomechanics in competitive sport. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2005;39:2–3. Hagel B, Meeuwisse W. Risk compensation: a ‘‘side effect’’ of sport injury prevention. Clin J Sport Med 2004;14:193–5.

[v] Williams-Avery R.M.; MacKinnon D.P.Injuries and use of protective equipment among college in-line  . Accident Analysis and Prevention, Volume 28, Number 6, November 1996 , pp. 779-784(6).

[vi] Morrongiello, Barbara A. and Beverly Walpole, Jennifer Lasenby Understanding children’s injury-risk behavior: Wearing safety gear can lead to increased risk taking. Accident Analysis and Prevention 39 (2007) 618–623.

[vii] McCarthy, Patrick and Wayne K. Talley. Evidence on risk compensation and safety behaviour. Economics Letters 62 (1999) 91–96.

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12 Comments on “Protective gear and risk compensation”

  1. DataDan Says:

    Really excellent post, Wendy.

    I’m kinda surprised at the variety of research that has been done on risk compenstion in everyday situations–child-proof drug containers, for example. Very enlightening.

  2. wmoon Says:

    DataDan, It kinda surprised me too. There’s some more surprising things on the way as well…
    Wendy

  3. Dennis Andrew Says:

    Wendy,
    RE: Protective Gear
    I am either sadden or amazed by many motorcyclist refusal to wear wear a helmet. I am involved in other sports not regulated as is ski-diving, where the participants automatically place a helmet on their noggin. White water kayakers now have very fancy helmets; some with a bill helps trap air in the turbulent waters. Some even have a metal face guard. These helmtes for river runners offer much more protection than a 1/2 motorcycle helmet. AS a sea kayaker my groups wear a helmet when playing in the rock gardens or coming in or going out in the surf. Helmets have become very popular on the ski slopes, used by both nordic skiers and snow boarders. Even the bicyclist now where helmets; even us old people who never wore one in our youth. I started wearing a bicycle helmet to be a role model when I rode with my grandkids

  4. wmoon Says:

    Dennis, I was surprised by how many sky divers I saw on youtube.com weren’t wearing helmets. I think you also exaggerate how many skiers wear them of either the Nordic or Alpine variety. As I’ve documented, more motorcyclists wear helmets without a law to demand they do, than drivers wear seat belts. And despite there being only 20 states with universal helmet laws, there are still more helmeted riders who are killed every year. So it’s not an easy answer–wear a helmet–as it may appear.

  5. DataDan Says:

    Mention of helmets in kayaking brings up the idea of protective gear as empowerment.

    I’m not a kayaker, but I understand that they sometimes intentionally invert the craft, which would seem to be a much less risky maneuver with a helmet. So while it may have started out purely as protection in the event of an accident, it has now become an adjunct that makes it possible to more fully enjoy the sport as it is now practiced.

    Football helmets and padding offer another example of protection morphing into added functionality. While they started out as protective gear, they are now offensive weapons (even if you play defense 😉 ).

    For many, the perceived protection of a motorcycle helmet is the difference between being able to enjoy the sport and finding it too risky. While risk compensation in motorcycling is sometimes understood to apply at the upper end of the risk spectrum–sportbike riders taking greater chances because of their helmets and leather and armor–it also applies at the lower end of the spectrum. Some people simply will not get on a motorcycle for a lap around the block at the speed limit without full gear (ATGATT!). Protective gear–along with training and their headlight modulators and neon colors–empower them to enjoy riding with enough perceived protection to tolerate the risk.

  6. wmoon Says:

    DataDan–what you describe in terms of kayakers is precisely the definition of risk compensation–or perhaps even risk homeostasis.

    I’m convinced you are right about the majority of risk compensation in motorcycling–it’s not at the upper end but at the most ordinary kind of riding done by the most ordinary kind of rider. The problem comes in when they believe that ATGATT makes them safer than they are.
    W.

  7. heednotsteve Says:

    Interesting post.

    I wear ATGATT but don’t feel it should be mandated. In any case, while I don’t doubt the NHTSA numbers, I think you have to be careful with the interpretation.

    It seems to me that, unless the study was done in a controlled environment, risk compensation would automatically be factored into the 25% effectiveness in reduction of injuries and the 37% effectiveness in the reduction of fatalities. Specifically, the crashed riders surveyed who were wearing protective gear would have likely already been consuming their safety margin (because they were wearing their gear).

    Also, those particular statistics don’t address the types of injuries reduced or prevented. Helmets are ineffective at protecting ribs and femurs and collar bones but very good at protecting skulls and faces and reasonably good at protecting brains, particularly at slower speeds. Do the numbers reflect the head injuries *not* sustained in lower speed crashes?

    I’m just nitpicking because I feel that in a dialog, on the subject of helmet laws, the statistics are untrustworthy and besides the point. If anything, they seem to demonstrate that, regardless of the limited effectiveness, wearing gear does more good than harm.

    -Steve

  8. wmoon Says:

    Steve, Helmets are fairly good at protecting skulls and chins, ears (and for full-face) faces. They are ok at protecting brains from blows from the outside. They do nothing for the worst kinds of brain injuries.

    And yes, NHTSA’s 37% effectiveness is based on all kinds of head trauma.

    And of course you feel the way you do–you believe the helmet story. I myself wear a helmet and do so no matter what state I’m riding in (though I did ride without one for a weekend in NM/TX to experience for myself what those who don’t believe the helmet story do.

    But let it put it this way: if your deodorant advertised itself as being 37% effective at stopping you from stinking or your shampoo said it had a 37% chance of cleaning your hair or your gasoline had a 37% chance of making your car run….would you think that was a very effective product?
    W.

  9. Gunslinger Says:

    I wonder if HD did a risk versus compensation study when they decided to ship motorcycles to warehouses, write less than good loans to purchasers of their products, destroy the brand resale value by having the finance company reposess and then sell at auction the fruits of the less than sterling customers at rock bottom prices or convert a manufacturing company to a lifestyle clothing and clothing accessory company? I believe corporations that incidently are run by alleged professionals can be categorized the same as individuals. In simple terms if I do this that or the other thing and get away unscathed then why not continue the behavior? It makes some sense somewhere

  10. DataDan Says:

    FYI, the 37% effectiveness in preventing death came from a NHTSA study of data on fatal crashes in the FARS database where the motorcycle had both a rider and passenger, at least one of whom died. By dividing cases into the four combinations of helmet use–neither helmeted, both helmeted, rider only, passenger only–they could compare, for example, the fates of helmeted and unhelmeted riders when the passenger was helmeted. Results of the comparisons were then combined to produce the overall estimate of 37% effectiveness. You can read the study here:
    http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/809715.PDF

  11. heednotsteve Says:

    You haven’t smelled my armpits; a 37% effective deodorant would be a Godsend!

    I jest.

    I’m not exactly sure what the helmet story is, but I don’t believe they’re a cure all.

    I do believe they help mitigate risk and that’s the best one can hope for in an activity with potentially catastrophic consequences. I view them as one of many risk mitigating tools, including leather and armor, rider training, health insurance, riding within one’s limits, traffic awareness, maintenance, sobriety, sleep, exercise, etc., etc..

    Also, for me, riding with a full face is much more comfortable than riding without a helmet. I live in Arizona and the air can be hot and dry. I’ve never been able to get comfortable riding without a helmet; although, I have ridden helmetless and can’t say I never would again.

    I don’t even know what I’m arguing here, because I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. I think we’re of a similar mind on the subject of helmet usage. I also do believe protective gear can lead to increased risk taking.

    And I don’t have an issue with people who oppose mandatory helmet laws or who choose not to wear protective gear.

    I guess I’m back to my original point which is this: limited effectiveness is still effectiveness. A 37% percent reduction in fatality is not insignificant. It’s a minor point, sure, but it stuck in my craw.

    Anyhow, thanks for listening to my nonsense. Keep the rubber side down!

  12. wmoon Says:

    Steve, I totally agree with how you view wearing a helmet. Funny story–I once rode through AZ in May with a friend who was an ardent anti-helmet non-wearer. The amount of bugs was AWFUL. Within minutes of leaving a gas station (where I had cleaned my faceshield and he had had to wash his face and beard) my faceshield was covered with dead but juicy bugs–and it was very hard to keep any kind of visibility. For that reason alone I would wear a fullface. But maybe that’s because I’m a girl. But in SoCal where I lived and rode usually, I found a fullface was much cooler on the freeways in the deep summer.

    And if you had read more than this entry, you would’ve found that I’ve said that 37% is still 37%. The problem is–which is the point of this entry–is that it takes NOTHING–no excessive risk, no sensation seeking–to outride that safety margin. The problem is that too many riders and non-riders think helmets are more effective than they are and either take on more risk than they would if they really understood how limited that protection is or take normal risks not realizing how limited that protection is. Riding is dangerous (which, if we’re honest is one of the reasons we ride) but too often it’s more dangerous than we believe it is–and would be less dangerous if we only realized how much more dangerous it is and adjusted our riding accordingly.

    But stay tuned–I think you’re going to have a few surprises in the next few entries.
    W.


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