The Drive: Going to our heads: Helmets for bike shares

  • Article by: TIM HARLOW , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 14, 2014 - 10:06 AM

A recent Washington State University study implies bike-sharing programs are leading to a rise in head injuries. Well, not exactly.

The study, “Public Bicycle Share Programs and Head Injuries” published in June in the American Journal of Public Health, reported that the risk of suffering a head injury among bicyclists rose 14 percent in the five test cities that have programs such as Nice Ride Minnesota. It also said that the proportion of head injuries associated with biking in those cities rose from 42.8 percent to 50 percent, according to trauma records for bicycle-related head injuries in the Twin Cities, Boston, Miami Beach, Washington, D.C., and Montreal. The proportion dropped in five control-study cities.

Bike-share programs typically don’t offer helmets, and its riders travel without helmets at a higher rate compared with users of personal bicycles, says the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The natural conclusion was that users of bike-sharing programs suffer more head injuries.

In reality, the number of bike injuries has dropped by 28 percent and head injuries declined 14 percent. Head injuries just constitute a greater proportion of the reported injuries, said Janessa Graves, the lead author of the study.

The data, for example, did not show how many head injuries involved participants using a bike-share program. Other factors such as age, riding experience and the type of riding — say commuting vs. mountain biking — were unaccounted for. Though limited in its findings, the study did raise a good question: Should bike-share programs offer helmets?

“This will spur the discussion about the potential risk of riding without a helmet,” Graves said. “I don’t want to [dissuade] people from riding, but for users of bike sharing, it’s important to have an option to rent a helmet.”

Protective gear encouraged

According to the Centers for Disease Control, head injuries account for 62 percent of bicycle-related deaths and one-third of bicycle-related emergency room visits. That is enough to get support for helmet rental from the Minnesota Brain Injury Alliance.

“We advocate it for all ages,” said executive director David King. “We do know that riders who have a bike accident are less likely to sustain a brain injury if they are wearing a helmet.”

Nice Ride doesn’t rent helmets because “nobody wants to use a shared helmet that has not been cleaned or inspected,” said executive director Bill Dossett. But it has given away nearly 12,000 helmets and plans to distribute another 8,000 at festivals and workplaces.

“We do encourage helmets and think it’s a good idea [to wear them],” said Dossett, who pointed out that Nice Ride has provided more than 1 million rides since its inception five years ago and has reported only three injuries; none were head injuries. “We realize this is a transportation system and somebody could get hurt tomorrow. Bike-share programs here and across the globe have had good safety records.”

Nice Ride might reconsider if a pilot program in Seattle proves successful. That city is starting a new bike share program this fall. As part of it, Seattle will have a vending service on the street that will allow riders to rent helmets.

“We’ll see how that goes,” Dossett said. “It is something we are interested in studying and learning about.”

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