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Cycling Helmets – Do They Save Lives

Yesterday, BBC Look East featured an item about a local triathelete, Melanie Ryding, who recently had a serious cycling accident whilst training.  Melanie spoke about how wearing a crash helmet had prevented her from suffering serious, even fatal, head injuries and urged all cyclists to learn from her experience and wear protection.  On the face of it this would seem to be a fairly uncontroversial position to take.  Unfortunately though,  the situation is not so straightforward.

In his excellent book, “Risk”, John Adams gives a number of examples where apparently sensible and well-intentioned attempts to protect people from harm have had the opposite result.  Two striking examples from the UK are the increase in fatalities amongst motorcyclists following the introduction of a law which made the wearing of crash helmets compulsory; and the increase in the number of children killed as rear seat passengers in cars following the passing of a law making it compulsory for children to buckle up in the back seat.

Adams explains these rather surprising outcomes (and there are many more) as resulting from changes to our behaviour in reaction to the perception of increased safety.  So, whilst the motorcyclist’s crash helmet will undoubtedly mitigate the risk of serious head injuries; if it also encourages him or her to ride more recklessly, we will see more serious injuries of other types (typically chest injuries).  Similarly, it would appear that once children were ‘safely’ restrained in the back seats of cars, their parents drove less cautiously and hence more accidents occurred.

Exactly the same logic applies in business, where one must beware that purchasing of insurance and investment in other risk management activities does not lead to complacency or recklessness.  To return to the cycling analogy: even when you are wearing a helmet you still need to look where you are going.