An article in this week's TIME magazine titled "Bike-Sharing Gets Smart" discusses the imminent launch of D.C.'s bike-sharing program. I'm quoted having said, "It's not a good idea to share helmets because you have sanitary issues and sweat issues" and that folks should "B.Y.O.H." or bring your own helmet.
While I personally wear a helmet when riding my own bike, helmet use is not mandated on any bike-sharing program of which I'm aware, nor should it be. Bike-sharing has been so successful because it has allowed for the impromptu bike trip as well as not needing to carry a helmet if the rider chooses not to. If impromptu trips were removed from overall bike-sharing trips, I haven't seen any survey data on this yet, but I'd guess that this would negatively impact the overall number of bike-sharing trips. Mandating helmet use on bike-sharing, or bike transit, is the equivalent of mandating one bring a seat belt in order to board a bus. It's a good idea to wear a seat belt in a motor vehicle to limit injury in the case of a crash, but by not having one, it shouldn't prevent folks from riding the bus. Mandating helmet use with bike-sharing would be similar and certainly suppress the popular use of the bike fleets.
Bike-sharing programs providing helmets attached to the bikes or at kiosks could be a sticky issue, literally. After only a few trips on the head of a sweating individual on a steamy day of 100 degree Farhenheit (38 Celcius) heat, helmets would become dripping. Not to mention helmets being left outside in the elements to grow mold. Even with hairnets to make it sanitary as some jurisdictions which require helmet use by adults have discussed, nets would not generally be used as no one wants to wear a hairnet in public.
There's also the liability concern about providing to the public a helmet that has lost its protective ability by having been dropped or involved in a previous crash. A helmet like this would cease to be useful in case it were needed, thereby allowing damage to the wearer and causing certain lawsuits.
No 3rd generation (high tech) bike-sharing programs that I'm aware of require the wearing of a helmet. Now that bike-sharing is set to take over the U.S., many American cities with helmet laws for adults will need to grapple with the feasibility of these laws and how they apply to bike-sharing.
What should be done is to create safer and more bicycle facilities, such as bike lanes, cycle tracks, and trails as safety of bicyclists is proven in numbers. In addition, safer bicyclists and motorists are minted with improved education of both groups. Safe bicyclists are created through bike education classes for all ages, such as the Washington Area Bicyclist Association's Safe Routes to School program, bicycle rodeos, and Confident City Cycling classes - to provide some regional models. Safe Routes to School educates children on how to safely walk or bike to school. Bicycle rodeos teach children how to ride a bike and practice their skills with a series of obstacle courses. Confident City Cycling classes teach adults who either never learned how to ride or need a refresher on proper riding techniques. As bicycle safety education is lacking from most schools' educational offerings, these classes are absolutely necessary.
Motorists also need to be better educated about watching for all street users as this Transport for London video deftly points out, driver's manuals and tests in the U.S. should have bicycle components, and motorists need greater enforcement and higher penalties should they put the lives of other street users (especially those who are most vulnerable) at risk.
image credit: Helmets R Us