01 January 2014

Risk Compensation Observations in Copenhagen

It's no secret that I spend some of my time talking about how to promote cycling positively and built into that is, of course, the discussion of helmets. Those of you who have read this blog for a while are well versed in my opinions. And it's times like this I happily link to the first TED talk I've done.

One of the points of in the discussion is risk compensation. The idea that if we have this perception of protection we become less risk adverse and push ourselves a little bit harder. It's a tough nut to crack. I've had discussions with intelligent friends were I've highlighted how most head injuries happen inside of cars - even with airbags and seat belts. I explain how an Australian government study suggested that motorists be made to wear head protection and I happily find photos of the motorist helmet developed by the University of Adelaide and Monash University on my smartphone to show them. More often than not, the people I speak with or interested and inquisitive which leads to an interesting discussion. There are those, however, who leave the rationality at the door and wax on about their airbags in their fancy new car. Pulling all of their faith in their survival as Homo sapiens in these devices.

Regarding risk compensation and cycling, it is said that if cyclists put a helmet on, they will be given a false sense of security and the result will be that they ride a bit faster and perhaps a bit wilder. Cycling past the limits of their abilities without really realising it.

It is the subject of a great deal of research done by people with greater expertise than I but I find it fascinating.

Last year, in 2012, I decided to embark on a little experiment of my own. A little bit of documentation and research. The numbers of people wearing helmets in Copenhagen has increased, not least since 2008 when the Danish Road Safety Council - the nation's greatest unofficial automobile lobby organisation - decided to go all out with an emotional propaganda campaign unleashed on an unsuspecting population - in one of the safest countries for cycling in the world. They obviously haven't read Frank Furedi's book Culture of Fear.

What we see is a lot of people who have been riding bicycles in Danish cities their entire lives now wearing helmets. By and large, these are the same citizen cyclists as ever, they are just wearing plastic hats. According to our research at Copenhagenize Design Company 17% wear helmets.

I was curious to see if I could register a difference in behaviour between those who are wearing helmets and those who are not on my daily cycling trips around the city. I have spent the last 18 months quietly and patiently counting. If you know anything about me you know that I am not a rock 'n' roll speed demon on my bicycle in Copenhagen. I do, apparently, tend to cycle a little bit faster than average. I can see through the journeys that I have tracked through the Endomondo app ("cycling as transport" is an option, which is why I use it) that my average speed is a bit over 20 km/h. The average speed for cyclists in Copenhagen is 16 km/h. I've noticed for years that I overtake other bicycle users much more often than I am overtaken.

I also noticed that since more and more people are wearing helmets in Copenhagen, the people that generally overtake me are wearing them. Indeed, a vast majority. I decided to to document the numbers with some private research. Counting how many people are wearing plastic hats among those who overtake me on the cycle tracks of the city.

Let it be said that I haven't cycled dozens and dozens of kilometres every single day, clicking a little counter religiously. I just started counting how many people were overtaking me and how many people or helmets and I wrote down the results everytime I got home. The nature of my journeys around the city vary greatly, so some days only a couple of bicycle users were counted and other days there were many more. If I rode down one of the many busy bicycle routes during rush hour each and every day, it probably wouldn't have taken so long. The data would have been different though.

Copenhagenize Design Company
noticed in our Choreography of an Urban Intersection study that there are more bicycle users wearing helmets during the rush-hour then there are during the rest of the day. Especially the morning rush-hour has a different tempo and intensity to it than cycling through the city in other periods, and even the afternoon rush hour. As a result, my private data gathering expedition had a broad spectrum of bicycle users involved. On the journeys where my speed was higher – late for something – or slower – riding with my kids or having a conversation with a friend – I didn't do any counts. I only counted when I was rolling along at my average speed, in the interest of consistency.

I decided to set a ceiling at the beginning. A nice big number that would give me some credible and reliable data. I thought about 1000 but then decided to go for 3000. I was in no hurry. Finally, last week, I rounded 3000 bicycle users overtaking me and so it is time to share the results.

If I average out the 3000 bicycle users who overtook me since June 2012, it works out to be 5.48 each day.

Basically, 12.5% were not wearing a helmet and 87.5% were wearing a helmet.

You can decide yourself what you want to do with the results of this study. It does indicate that there is a clear difference in behaviour between the bicycle users in Copenhagen who wear a helmet and who do not. Also, considering the fact that a bicycle helmet is only designed to protect your head at speeds of 20 km/h or lower, these bicycle users were cycling at speeds that exceeded that.

These are the hard numbers. I can add to this a general idea of my other observations over the past year and a half. For example, it was mostly men passing me by - but not such a high number as I anticipated when I started. I didn't record the exact numbers but my qualified guess is 70% male.

I live on a main street leading to and from the city and I have noticed that most of the women who passed me did so in the late afternoon when they were heading home from work. The style of the bicycles also indicated to me that they were commuters were heading a bit farther than the majority in the city. So, yeah, they would tend to cycle a little bit faster than average. I have caught myself doing the same thing when cycling home from various jobs on similar routes in the past. Fair enough. It remains interesting though that was during this period that most women overtook me.

As virtually every other bicycle user in Copenhagen will tell you, the high-speed overtaking serves little purpose in the densely populated neighbourhoods. As a rule you roll up beside them at a red light 200 m farther along. All that agressive bell ringing for nothing.

This entire study was for my own personal edification. The data I gathered can perhaps be interesting to some others. Great if it can. I just noticed a pattern and I wanted to document it. Also because nobody has done it before and given the fact that helmets are a new thing in Copenhagen this is an interesting and unique location trying document such behaviour.

It has been an interesting and fascinating task but to be honest I'm quite pleased that it is over and I can once again happily cycle through my city without having to do mental counts several times a day.


Unknown said...

A helmet perhaps says "I'm a keen cyclist with all the kit", and perhaps "I like to take risks with my cycling", as opposed to people who happen to use bicycles for local transport but who don't think of themselves as risk-takers or "cyclists".

Helmets are often compulsory in racing cycling too, adding to their "go faster" credentials.

So I'd guess that a large majority of those wearing polystyrene hats would say "I'm a cyclist", while the majority of those not wearing polystyrene hats would not say that.

Cycle helmets are promoted mainly because they're an easy way for manufacturers and bicycle shops to make large profits. The "safety" aspect makes them rather too easy to sell.

russellelly said...

Interesting (and not too surprising), but no way to determine if its correlation (people who choose helmets choose to cycle quickly) or causation (people who choose helmets cycle faster because of the helmet).

lagatta à montréal said...

I've definitely noticed that here in Montréal, where the helmet-wearing rate is somewhat higher (but still in the minority). And indeed, these "fast" cyclists always have to stop at the lights - unless they skip them, of course.

Pity that there are so many of the damned things in Copenhagen, despite all the safe bicycle infrastructure.

Humpty Dumpty said...

What is the ratio of cyclists wearing helmets (independent of overtaking)? Is it the same ratio you found? You say at one point that most cyclists wear helmets. So one would expect most of those overtaking you to be wearing helmets.
Cheers, Stephan

Dave Feucht said...

Humpty Dumpty: "According to our research at Copenhagenize Design Company 17% wear helmets."

Dave Feucht said...

I don't have any statistics to back it up, but I would bet that, even if there isn't a 100% correlation between helmet usage (or high-vis and other 'gear') and more aggressive riding, there is probably a strong correlation.

I've had multiple people say to me "oh yeah, if I just cycled ___ speed, I wouldn't bother with a helmet."

The only crash I've ever been in with another person involved was when a guy in full lycra kit and helmet rear-ended me on a multi-use path because I had to swerve to avoid something, and he was going too fast and couldn't stop and slammed right into me.

Again, whether they ride fast because of the helmet, or whether they wear the helmet because they ride fast (or possibly some of both) is maybe impossible to determine.

In Portland, helmet usage is officially stated to be around 75%, give or take a few percent, so basically everyone from the full lycra kit racing bike guy to the flowing-dress, upright city-bike woman (and all in-between) are usually wearing helmets, so this experiment would be a little harder to conduct here :) You also have the issue that a lot of 'normal' cyclists wear helmets and lycra and high-vis and rain gear and the whole shebang simply because it's kind of 'what you do' socially, not because they ride aggressively.

Here you also have the extreme social stigma that to get on a bike without a helmet is selfish, irresponsible, arrogant and just plain stupid, so that also has a lot to do with why people wear them.

Not to mention that people feel like police and courts are more likely to pin the blame on them for their injuries if they weren't wearing a helmet, regardless of the situation (I've also heard this reason for wearing them cited over and over again).

Really, it's just a social mess here when it comes to bicycles.

Paul M said...

I don't know to what extent what you observe is correlation, or causation, but of course it isn't only observed in cyclists. You can see it in many other activities. For example, probably 20-30 years ago it was not normal in the UK for cars to have much in the way of passenger protection - or at least it was not something which manufacturers advertised or claimed as a virtue.

Until the two major Swedish manufacturers, Saab and Volvo, started to introduce cars with crumple zones and safety cages, and to make this a virtue in their advertising - oh how I remember the irony, when I was once a passenger in a Volvo taxi in London, involved in a rear-end shunt with the vehicle in front. Right where we found ourselves at a halt, there was a 48-sheet poster ad extolling the virtues of the Volvo safety cage & crumple zones for protection in an accident!

But soon I observed something rather less amusing - Volvo/Saab drivers on the motorway, speeding, tailgating and flashing their headlights, and generally behaving recklessly. these were not youngsters - in fact these cars, relatively pricey models, were mainly driven by middle-aged men in mid-level to senior sales and marketing positions.

My observation was confirmed, by statistics which gradually came out. Drivers of cars with advertised safety features tended to drive more dangerously.


opottone said...

"there are more bicycle users wearing helmets during the rush-hour then there are during the rest of the day"

I find this fact quite interesting, but I don't quite know what to make of it. Is this risk compensation in the other direction: people wear more safety gear when traffic is heavier and is (or at least feels) more dangerous? Or is this because different kind of people ride at different times?

Jim Moore said...

A great post and a great study. Given the high rate of helmeted overtakers - five times the cycling population - I'd be surprised if a blind study didn't also find this to be statistically significant. And know you can ride again without feeling compelled to count...and even partake in a little bit more late-night competitive riding in the Bullitt against the boy-racers ;-)

@Dave Feucht: it amazes me that there is such high social pressure to conform in allegedly non-conformist Portland. Definitely the "weirdest" thing about Portland in this singling out of un-helmeted cyclists. Worthy of a study on its own!

hardcoder said...

Anecdotal with no proof, however from my own eyeballs I'd say 4WD vehicles are over-represented up-side-down on the side of the road after skidding off on the way to Australian ski fields. Some of them are driven by impatient drivers in poor conditions and black ice - either ignorant, or believe the machine is infallible. (4WDs are often exempt from fitting chains where 2WDs may legally need to fit them).

From personal experience, riding my slower upright bike is vastly safer than my fast bike with helmet. I do (did) tend to push the boundaries on that. Call me an idiot if you will, however, I was quite blind to the fact until getting my omafiets. I think vehicular cycling in countries like Oz/US/etc translates car ideologies to fast, brazen and pride-based behaviour on bikes. Not blaming the bike of course, I think it's cultural, which is why I think so many are blind to helmet debate here.

Dave Feucht said...

@Jim Moore: There are many things that Portland is known for, many of them are not true. Most notably for this discussion, Portland is known as a bike-friendly city. This is not the case at all. It is only moderately bike-friendly because there aren't that many people here. If we had as many people as NYC (or even LA or Chicago), we would be no better than NYC - in fact, we would be worse, as they have gone much further to support ordinary cycling than we have, and in our case, 85% of people own a car here, as opposed to 40% or something in NYC.

Portland gets a lot of hype because a lot of people choose to ride bikes (relative to the U.S.), and then our government uses that hype to make itself look hip and progressive, when honestly, they had almost nothing to do with it, and in reality are extremely conservative and hesitant to do anything that would take any space (physical or mental) away from automobiles.

Aquademica AB said...

Interesting to see ... thank you it's well done :) Mögel

Zazzels said...
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