This study investigated risk compensation by cyclists in response to bicycle helmet wearing by observing changes in cycling behavior, reported experience of risk, and a possible objective measure of experienced risk. The suitability of heart rate variability (HRV) as an objective measure of experienced risk was assessed beforehand by recording HRV measures in nine participants watching a thriller film. We observed a significant decrease in HRV in line with expected increases in psychological challenge presented by the film. HRV was then used along with cycling pace and self-reported risk in a field experiment in which 35 cyclist volunteers cycled 0.4 km downhill, once with and once without a helmet. Routine helmet users reported higher experienced risk and cycled slower when they did not wear their helmet in the experiment than when they did wear their helmet, although there was no corresponding change in HRV. For cyclists not accustomed to helmets, there were no changes in speed, perceived risk, or any other measures when cycling with versus without a helmet. The findings are consistent with the notion that those who use helmets routinely perceive reduced risk when wearing a helmet, and compensate by cycling faster. They thus give some support to those urging caution in the use of helmet laws.
© 2011 Society for Risk Analysis.