Friday, June 13, 2008

Bike-sharing and Helmets

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


Mr. MyBike said...

This is a Gordian Knot we've been working on for a while now. It's encouraging to see that Washington will not issue helmets and expects a limited amount of legal liability. What a logistical nightmare!

Morten Lange (Reykjavík) said...

For more information on the efficiency of helmets, and the scientific debate, check out the Wikipedia article, or the site of the Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation. Info from helmet promoters is also linked from the Wikipedia article and the BHRF web.

For a satirical pitch, check out

Anonymous said...

Tel Aviv has signed a contract of 2000 bikes in 150 stations, but its all stuck due to a relatively new helmets law.

Unknown said...

Yes, there is no economic way to hygienically provide helmets to those who want to rent bikes.
Bike rent schemes in Australia and New Zealand have fallen at the same hurdle.
And now Slovakia wants to bring in a helmet law! (for children everywhere, and adults outside towns)
Grrrr --

Anonymous said...

While inconvenient, carrying a helmet with you does not seem like a show stopper. They are far more portable than bikes.

And certainly, better than ending up with a cracked skull.

I still wish we'd see separate roads for bikes. Even so, it does not protect you against other cyclist, some of whom are a danger to you.

dougdo said...

Helmet laws are asinine nanny-state reactionary laws. What about just letting people make informed and reasonable decisions on their own? I wear a helmet 95% of the time but feel justified in not wearing it if I'm doing a short trip with lots of stops but here in Vancouver I risk getting ticketed. There was a recent article in our local paper about the police handing out warning tickets to cyclists with the bike laws printed on them which included fines for such things as not having a bell or raising your butt off the seat! These laws were clearly written by someone who doesn't cycle.

Morten Lange (Reykjavík) said...

To Anonymous (June 6, 2009) : Do you think always having to bring ones own strap for the seat belt in a bus or even taxis and private cars would e a show stopper ? Less bulky than a bus, taxi or private car or even than a helmet. Still a hassle, no ?

There are no stories that I am aware of where a bicycle helmet has been shown to prevent the cracking of a skull. The helmets are not made to withstand that kind of forces. Please educate yourself. ( Yeah I know it´s a pain. Took me 6 months ) On the other hand there are very many clear cut where : YES the cyclist wore a helmet and YES his skull crackes and YES/NO he/she survived with/without debilitating braindamage. And people without helmets in similar crashes with similar results ( with or without cracked skulls, and with and wothout debilitating brain damage).

With your focus on the supposed dangers of cycling, and "Anonymous" status, could you possible be (inadvertently ) spreading "truths" on behalf of the crumbling motoring industry ?
;-D Just kidding...

Yes there are dangers in cycling, but the risks of serious injury are clearly lower for some agegroups than for car-drivers. And if one calculates risk over a lifespan or on a per-trip basis, cycling compares favourably. See e.g. EU: Cycling – The Way Ahead for Towns and Cities

And cyclists live longer, so the life-extending properties are way stronger than the life-shortening properties of cycling for transport. See Andersen:All-cause mortality associated with physical activity during leisure time, work, sports, and cycling to work. Arch Intern Med 2000 This is amongst the foremost of the studies that the World Health Organisation have used in producing formulas for estimating the savings obtainable for a society where cycling is increased.