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London Mayor Boris Johnson rides bike in Melbourne, sans a helmet.
London Mayor Boris Johnson rides bike in Melbourne, sans a helmet.

Bike Helmets, Accidents, and Hygiene

London Mayor Boris Johnson takes a spin on a bikeshare bicycle down Spring Street in Melbourne, Australia. He regularly rides a bike back home in England, often without wearing a helmet. Ironically, that's illegal in Melbourne, which likely accounts for why the system is underutilized.

One of the issues I am wrestling with as I prepare to launch my six (6) bike pilot electric bicycle rental spin-off of EV World is whether or not to offer helmets for people to wear. On the surface, it seems like a logical decision: provide riders with that extra bit of protection, especially since a lot of my prospective clientele are likely to be older riders who may not have actively ridden a bicycle since their youth.

But it turns out that the issue isn't as clear cut as it seems. As I prepared myself for getting back into cycling in a more serious way, I have read a lot of books on bicycling, virtually all them coming down somewhere on a middle ground that basically concludes: It's probably smart to wear a helmet if you cycle a lot, but the jury is out on whether or not it actually can reduce the risk of injury." It certainly won't prevent accidents, and some research suggests it may even exacerbate the situation.

I came across this item today, hosted by Cyclehelmet.org, which isn't as pro-helmet as you might expect.

"In places where helmet use has become significant, there has been no detectable reduction in head injuries relative to cycle use."

In the context of renting (hiring) out bicycles in general, and in ePEDALER's case, electric-assist models, there is significant evidence that helmets simply aren't needed. According to research published on Cyclehelmet.org, people who use bikeshare systems have a dramatically lower incidence of accidents. Consider these numbers:

Dublin, Ireland -- 2 million rentals (hirings) and just two injuries requiring less than 24 hours in hospital

London, England -- 6.2 million journeys made by one million people, during which there were only 70 slight and 9 serious injuries: none of them life-threatening

Montreal, Quebec, Canada -- 3.5 million kilometres (2.17 million miles) cycled using the Bixi bikeshare system over a 12 month period and there were just five minor injuries to riders.

Washington, D.C. -- 330,000 trips in its first 7 months and there were only 7 crashes of any kind, and none of them involved serious injury.

The only known Western city (to date to experience any fatalities directly connected to its bikeshare system is Paris. (We just don't hear much out of China on this question even though they have two of the largest bikeshare systems on the planet). In 138 million trips through 2010, there were 7 fatalities in Paris. There were none in 2011 or 2012, the latest figures we have. States Cyclehelmet.org:

"Most of the deaths have been as a result of cyclists conflicting with right-turning buses and lorries, against which helmets offer no realistic protection."

New York City's Citibike bikeshare program pretty much echoes the experience of other cities with similar systems, none of which require or offer helmets to renters. In the first 12 months of operation, Citibike members rode the equivalent of 40 million miles and during that time, there were 40 crashes, none of them serious, much less fatal. In contrast, in 2012 18 cyclists died across the city.

What bikeshare program managers are discovering is that their renters tend to be safer, and maybe less reckless, riders than bike owners. Here's maybe the most astounding number of all, one which I highlighted on this blog last August. Since the first commercial bikeshare program in America launched in Tulsa, OK in 2007, bikeshare riders have taken 23 million trips and in that time, there has not be a single fatality. None of these programs require riders wear helmets.

Maybe the scariest issue of all is the hygiene one. Notes Cyclehelmet.org…

"None of the successful schemes requires cyclists to use a helmet and none are provided. As well as the practical difficulties of offering helmets to users at each bike station in a sufficient range of sizes, there are health and hygiene issues that make sharing helmets unacceptable.

"Head lice can live two days away from a host and are endemic in the western world, especially among children. Fungal scalp infections ("tinea capitis") spread by contact. They are usually caused by fungi of the genera Microsporum and Trichophyton. They may be serious ("kerion") and can result in hair loss (alopecia) or even major skin loss. Then there are the less tangible but real fears people have about not wanting to wear an item of second hand clothing, especially one that has not been washed. Helmets left for days exposed to the elements could grow mould, especially in humid climates."

In my mind, which would be the more likely scenario given the statistics mentioned above: a rider suing me for injuries sustained while cycling without a helmet or for contracting a head lice infestation or fungus infection from an unsanitary helmet? I'd bet the latter would be far more likely, wouldn't you?

Addendum

Today, 3 Jan. 2016, I came across this 2010 TEDx talk by Mikael Colville-Andersen on why he doesn't advocate the wearing of bike helmets, a subject he'd spent two years researching.

Posted By: Bill Moore [22-Feb-2015]

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