What to Do About Helmets and Bike Share

Categories: bikes

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No amount of eco-conscious, collaborative consumption, civic-pride good vibes are going to protect your skull when you get hit by a bus. For the time being you'll have to bring your own helmet (BYOH) while riding one of the new Bay Area Bike Share bikes, but for many travelers or commuters that's an unlikely scenario. There are some solutions for "helmet share" that might make their way to the Bay Area. Here are some approaches other cities are taking to provide noggin safety while borrowing a bike.

Bike Share and Helmets

While you're not legally obligated to wear a helmet while riding a bike in California unless under 18, both Bay Area Bike Share and the NHTSA recommend one. Bay Area Bike Share says:

"We do recommend our customers wear helmets, and you are encouraged to bring your own, but because the stations are fully automated, we aren't able to provide helmets to customers where bikes are checked out. We will be exploring helmet discount programs as well as options to help customers easily locate helmets for purchase in each of the service areas."

Bike share programs are kind of a perfect storm; cyclists who use them are less likely to wear helmets, this Georgetown University study says. I'd venture to guess there's also a higher proportion of novice cyclists using bike share programs. Most importantly, helmets are the single most important way to prevent head injury according the NHTSA, and non-helmet wearing are significantly more likely to die in an accident than helmeted cyclists. So it seems like developing a helmet share aspect of the bike share program should be a priority.

The Helmet Vending Machine

You can vend anything -- helmets aren't even that hard. Boston is installing helmet kiosks developed by an MIT student startup, HelmetHub, at some bike share locations. Since most people don't like to wear other people's headgear, each helmet is cleaned after it is returned to the machine. The solar powered machines hold up to 36 helmets in three sizes and will dole one out for $2, or you can just keep the helmet and it'll charge you $20-30.

Vouchers and Rentals

Like our new Bay City Bike Share hinted, they may just leave helmets to riders, but encourage the use of headgear with discounts at local bike shops. New York City is taking a somewhat similar approach by partnering with a local bike shop to provide helmet rentals. This is kind of a better-than-nothing approach that will probably not actually increase helmet use. No one jumping on bike share is likely to want to make another stop to grab a helmet, and it's unlikely that one demographic -- travelers -- are going to want to buy a helmet for a few hours of pedaling.

Disposable Helmets

It may sound contrary to the ethos of bike sharing, but a disposable helmet might actually be the best bet. But some designers in London have come up with a helmet that's made of recycled paper pulp that can simply be tossed after use. It can probably even be composted, or re-pulped to become a helmet again. This avoids the delicate issue of sanitation that helmet rentals have to face. These helmets aren't going to win any beauty contests, and that itself might be something of a deterrent for some riders, but they're cheap and could be easily sold. At a a vending machine perhaps?

Helmets are a No Brainer

Until a precocious startup gets in bed with Alta, the company in charge of the Bay Area Bike Share program, we'll just have to bring our own helmets. Or not. In Seattle where a bike share system is set to debut soon, you won't have an option: riding bare headed can get you a $103 fine. We probably don't need a universal helmet law; after all, our European friends manage to stay safe due to low speed limits, extensive bike infrastructure, and a critical mass of riders. But until those things happen here, it makes sense to offer helmets as part of the bike share system.


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