Why Helmets Are Bike Shares Achilles Heel

What Cities Can Do to Keep Their Riders Safe

Bike shares are here in a big way. Worldwide there are now over 650 cities with bike shares, and more joining up all the time. It has become an expectation that cities offer bike shares to tourists and residents alike. They ease the challenge of one-way and short trips, provide a motor-free option home, and help fill in gaps in public transit systems.

But for all their benefits, bike shares worldwide continue to face the challenge of getting helmets on the heads of their riders. In New York City’s Citi Bike program, one of the world’s most popular and widely-used, approximately 85 percent of riders do not wear a helmet. Worldwide, short-term users (meaning those that are not annual or monthly members, and rather purchase day or week passes) wear helmets only 6 percent of the time.

But the benefits of helmets are clear. Research published in 2016 showed that helmeted cyclists were 51% less likely to suffer a traumatic brain injury in a crash, and 44 percent less likely to die. The Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute says helmets reduce the risk of head, brain, and severe brain injury by 66 to 88%.

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Still the safety benefits of helmets are widely documented, and often, the responsibility of the user. But with the proliferation of bike shares around the globe comes increasing regulatory challenges. Although there are no statewide laws requiring helmets for users of all ages in the U.S., many states have requirements for youth, and some localities have passed their own all ages laws.

Brisbane and Melbourne, Australia both have helmet requirements for all ages. Despite the laws, both cities launched new bike share programs without providing any  accommodation for users to get a helmet, which essentially tanked both programs. In Dallas, a universal helmet law was changed to only apply to users under 18. The change was made to accommodate a bike share program, which may help program usage, but flies in the face of rider safety.

One promising solution to bike sharing’s helmet dilemma comes out of Seattle’s Pronto Bike Share, where a short-term fix was needed to circumvent the city’s universal helmet law. Pronto turned to an honor system that left sanitized, plastic-wrapped helmets unlocked in bins at bike share stations. Users (or anyone) could grab a helmet, ride, and then drop it in a return bin when they were done (or not).

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Pronto had no way of tracking who checked out helmets, where they went, and who returned them. But against conventional wisdom, only 3-4 percent of helmets went unaccounted for. Pronto now offers helmets via a keypad checkout system that enables them to more clearly track and preserve their helmets, but that is strongly influenced by the success of their pilot.

But will the success of Seattle’s program be imitable elsewhere, or will other cities suffer the cost of helmets disappearing (although, a program that gives helmets to cyclists may not be a bad idea.)? Tough to know, but it’s a sign of promise.

One thing that is clear, if bike shares continue to grow at the current rate, it might be a good time to get into the helmet business.

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