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Farris et al. (1997) carried out an observation study of bicyclists near a US university campus to see whether helmeted riders complied with traffic laws more than unhelmeted riders. They observed three stop-sign junctions during daylight and recorded for each bicyclist: helmet use, whether an arm-signal was used, and whether the bicyclist came to a complete stop before turning (a strict legal requirement in the US). They found that helmeted riders were more likely to give an arm-signal and to stop than unhelmeted riders, suggesting that bicyclists who choose to wear helmets are generally a more cautious, law-abiding group than those who do not.
An obvious implication of this is that any apparent reductions in casualties amongst helmeted cyclists compared to unhelmeted cyclists may be the result of an underlying personality trait of cautiousness — manifest both in the decision to wear a helmet and in riding style — rather than the protective effect of the helmets per se. Given also the finding that the way bicyclists protect themselves varies dramatically from country to country (Osberg, Stiles, & Asare, 1998), it would be extremely valuable if Farris et al.’s study could be replicated in other countries to see how broadly the finding of generally cautious behaviour in helmeted bicyclists holds. If the relationship is found in other cultures, this would provide a valuable context in which to understand the relationship between helmet use and bicycle injury rates at the population level.
One practical issue is that some countries may need to use behaviour at traffic lights instead of stop signs, as not all countries use stop signs as much as the US and traffic lights provide broadly similar issues of compliance (e.g., 16.5% of a sample of UK cyclists said they generally ride through red lights if it seems safe — Walker & Jones, 2005).
This issue originally arose in a discussion on the Cycle Planning email discussion group in June 2005.
Farris, C., Spaite, D.W., Criss, E.A., Valenzuela, T.D. & Meislin, H.W. (1997). Observational evaluation of compliance with traffic regulations among helmeted and nonhelmeted bicyclists. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 29, 625-629.
Osberg, J.S., Stiles, S.C., & Asare, O.K. (1998). Bicycle safety behavior in Paris and Boston. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 30, 679-687.
Walker, I. & Jones, C. (2005). The Oxford and Cambridge Cycling Survey. Oxford: Oxfordshire County Council.
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Walker, I. (2006). Is there a relationship between bicycle helmet use and bicyclist behaviour at road junctions outside the USA?. PHILICA.COM Observation number 8.