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Only 1 in 5 Capital Bikeshare Users Wears a Helmet

Yeah, those free bikes are great—but increasing numbers of riders aren’t protecting themselves against injury.

New research shows that four out of five users of bikeshare programs don't wear helmets. Photograph courtesy of Flickr user ElvertBarnes.

The amount of cyclists and bike commuters in Washington has grown tremendously, thanks in no small part to Capital Bikeshare, the region’s bike-sharing program, which launched in September 2010.

But even though the program has encouraged car-free living and provides a healthy alternative to taking the Metro or driving, most riders are risking their lives by not wearing a helmet. According to a new study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, only one in five bikeshare cyclists wears a helmet—that’s more than 80 percent of cyclists riding with nothing protecting their melon.

“Head injury accounts for a third of all bicycle injuries and about three-quarters of bicycle-related deaths, so these are some pretty shocking numbers,” the study’s lead author, Christopher Fischer, said in statement.

The study looked at the Capital Bikeshare program in Washington and Boston’s Hubway program, the two newest programs to join the 15 operations in the US. More than 3,000 bicyclists were observed.

Turns out bikeshare users were more likely to ride without a helmet than cyclists with personal bicycles; only 48.6 percent of personal riders rode without a helmet, a drastic drop from the 80 percent of bike sharers.

Men and weekend riders were more likely to skip the helmet, too.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, helmet use has been estimated to reduce head injury risk by 85 percent. But 91 percent of cyclists killed in 2008 weren’t wearing helmets. That number didn’t change in 2009, either.

The good news is that these numbers may change, at least in Washington, since Capital Bikeshare just started selling $16 helmets with the purchase of a membership about two weeks ago. Wearing a helmet is not required when using a Capital Bikeshare bike, but the company does strongly recommend it.

Currently, state laws requiring helmet use only concern young children. In the District, riders under 16 are required to wear a helmet; in Northern Virginia, it’s riders 14 and younger; and in Maryland, riders under 16 must wear a helmet while riding on public property, although in Howard County it’s under 17 and in Montgomery County it’s under 18.

The full study is available online.

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  • I do think they do save lives.

  • If you are a cycling enthusiast it is of primary importance that you wear a helmet for protection. There are quality bike helmets available in the market today so make sure you buy one for your hobby. According to research, proper use of bike helmets can reduce the severity of a head injury by up to ninety percent. Now that's a large percentage when you're talking about head injuries.

  • RunningWriting

    The quote about helmets and injuries is silly and misleading when applied to Capital Bikeshare. Sure, you could say head injuries were associated with 100% of all deaths on CaBi bikes... because there haven't been any. At least none that I'm aware of. So yes, 0 of 0 CaBi deaths were associated with head injuries.

    The overall injury and accident rates are very low too. A discussion about the issue this spring revealed as few as 2 or 3 serious injuries among the more than 1.5 million total bike trips. Even if there have been a few cases that were not widely reported, the overall accident and injury rate has been very low. The risk of injury is probably similar to that of being a pedestrian downtown and yet no one is calling for pedestrians to wear helmets.

    CaBi bikes are heavy and slow, which make them safer. There is more reaction time for cyclists, drivers and even pedestrians to avoid collisions. It's easier to spot potential unsafe situations because of the slower speeds involved. The low accident and injury rates bear this out.

    I think it's useful to wear a helmet but it's hardly a disaster waiting to happen, at least with Capital Bikeshare bikes. Is there zero risk of head injury? No, but one could say the same for pedestrians and car drivers in the D.C. region. Even if there is an increased risk of injury from not wearing a helmet, the injury rate remains extremely low, whether or not the cyclist is wearing a helmet.

    On the other hand, it is much more important for faster cyclists riding on road bikes to wear helmets. Even then, helmets don't offer that much protection in a high-speed collision with a car. Properly designed infrastructure and safe practices (by cyclists, pedestrians and car drivers) are more important.

  • oboe

    "Even though the program has encouraged car-free living and provides a healthy alternative to taking the Metro or driving, most riders are risking their lives by not wearing a helmet."

    Sorry, but this is bull-crap. Most riders are certainly not risking their lives by not wearing a helmet. At least no more than most drivers are risking their lives by not wearing a helmet. Or most "ladder-climbers" for that matter. Because I'd wager the majority of people who die from falling off ladders die of head injuries, too.

    It's not enough to talk about percentages without talking about frequency. How many head injuries do cyclists suffer per vehicle mile traveled? It's infinitesimal. And what percentage of those would be mitigated by wearing a helmet? Fewer still.

  • Given that the leading killer of humans above 5YO and under 35 is motor vehicle wrecks, you would think more would be done about the leading childhood killer and less time worrying about adults riding without helmets when there is no conclusive studies showing a real benefit of wearing helmets vs the reduced cycling caused by helmet laws. Especially since bicycle helmets are only tested to prevent skull fractures at impact speeds of 12.5 MPH and not to prevent TBI which is the major cause of loss of life and function in wrecks with cars. I wear a helmet every time I ride because that is the only PPE we get as cyclists...

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