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.

By: Melissa Romero

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.