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Do cyclists have an exaggerated perception of the effectiveness of cycle helmets and the risks of cycling?

Richard Burton , University of the West of England - department Transport Planning
2008

This dissertation examines whether cyclists have a realistic appreciation of the effectiveness of cycle helmets, and whether they have a realistic appreciation of the risks of cycling, and whether the two are related.

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Abstract

This dissertation examines whether cyclists have a realistic appreciation of the effectiveness of cycle helmets, and whether they have a realistic appreciation of the risks of cycling, and whether the two are related.  Because cycle helmets and fear of cycling are deter cycling, and it is government policy to increase cycling for health and other reasons, exaggerated views may prevent policy being carried into practice.

A survey of over 300 cyclists was undertaken to discover the views of cyclists in those two areas.  Interviews were also conducted with ten cyclists to explore the subject in more depth.

An extensive literature search was also done, including publicity and research about risks of cycling and helmet effectiveness.  This included academic research and also the popular media, to examine if that could be a formative factor in cyclists’ perceptions. 

The surveys were analysed using a spreadsheet programme, whilst the interviews were examined for common themes and explicit reasons for attitudes. The results were discussed and interpreted and conclusions drawn.

The main conclusion is that the majority of the people surveyed do have an exaggerated opinion of the effectiveness of cycle helmets, and an exaggerated opinion of the risks of cycling, and that the two are associated.  These perceptions are likely to be caused by exaggerations in the promotional material for helmets, which exaggerates both the risks of cycling and the effectiveness of helmets.

Following on from this, the exaggerations in the promotional material are likely to both prevent some people from cycling because of the fear of the risk, and to induce risk compensatory behaviour in those who chose to cycle and wear a helmet.

Given the overwhelming benefits of cycling, helmet promotion is found to be counterproductive in both economic and public health terms.

Theo Zeegers (-)
28-11-2008 @ 12:52

Op een enkel onderdeel komt de presentatie van de cijfers mij wat ongelukkig voor. Voor alle helderheid, de hoofdconclusies van de studie zijn hier niet van afhankelijk. In grafiek 14 zijn de percentages genomen ten opzichte van de totale groep geënquêteerden. Omdat de drie groepen helmdragers / niet-dragers / soms-dragers sterk in grote verschillen (zie tabel 4.12), geeft dat een enorme vertekening. De blauwe balken in de grafiek zijn altijd hoger dan de andere, omdat er eenvoudigweg meer helmdragers in de enquete zitten. Beter lijkt het mij, de resultaten zo te schalen dat per groep helmdragers het totaal op 100 % komt. Doe je dat, dan krijg je grafiek 4.14bis (grafiek 1 hieronder weergegeven). Deze grafiek leidt tot de conclusie dat naarmate fietsers meer helm dragen, zij de relatieve risico’s van fietsen (in vergelijking met die van voetgangers) hoger inschatten.

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Theo Zeegers (-)
01-12-2008 @ 11:29

Translation (TZ): The figures given by Burton seem to me confusing in some minor parts of the study. The main conclusion is sound, as far as I can see. Nevertheless, I'd like to comment on these details: In graph 14 the percentages are taken with respect to all people in the study. However, the three groups wear helmets always / sometimes / never differ largely in size. Therefore, it is trivial that the blue bars are the highest. I would recommend to take the percentages relative to the size of either of the three groups. If you do that, you get the graph above. From this graph, one can see that the more cyclists wear helmets, the higher they estimates the risk of cycling (relative to walking). Quod erat demonstrandum.

 

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