Only 1 in 5 Hubway bike-share riders in Boston wear helmets, study suggests

The nine-month-old bike-share program in Boston offers 600 bicycles for borrowing at 61 stations, but the program, called Hubway, lacks one important safety feature: helmets for rent. That could explain why fewer than one in five bike sharers are using them compared with more than half of those who ride their own bikes throughout the city, according to a study published Monday in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

Researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center observed more than 3,000 bicyclists in Boston and Washington, DC, including 562 who were riding shared bicycles, and found that bike-share users were more than twice as likely to be pedaling without helmets, which puts them at far greater risk of suffering a serious head injury during an accident.

Overall, a higher percentage of cyclists in Boston rode without helmets compared to those in Washington—52 percent compared to 61 percent—so it could be that actual percentage of bike sharers riding helmeted in Boston is even lower than the study indicated.

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“I think it’s a problem of access,” said study author Dr. Christopher Fischer, an emergency room physician at Beth Israel Deaconess. “It’s often more of a spur of the moment decision to use a bike share, and riders often find themselves without helmets.”

A previous count by Boston officials found that 30 percent of passing Hubway users wore helmets.

About 51,000 bike-related head injuries and 630 deaths occurred in the United States in 2009, the most recent year for which national data were available. Research suggests that wearing helmets could decrease the risk of head injury and brain injury by 65 to 88 percent.

“There’s a wide spectrum of injuries that can occur from falling off your bike and hitting your head, from a minor bump to a severe traumatic devastating injury” that causes permanent paralysis, cognitive defects, or in rare cases death, Fischer said. While helmets can’t protect against every kind of accident like “getting creamed by a bus,” he added, “they provide a degree of protection, and anything is better than nothing.”

Massachusetts law stipulates that bike riders 16 years of age or younger wear a helmet while biking but, like other states, it has no law requiring adults to wear helmets.

One solution could Last year, undergraduates from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a prototype apparatus they dubbed HelmetHub that would dispense bike helmets—adjustable to fit most head sizes—through a touch-screen vending machine. The City of Boston has expressed some interest, Fischer said technical obstacles, like how to sanitize helmets between each use, would have to be overcome first.

To increase helmet use, the Boston Public Health Commission plans to kick-off a public awareness campaign this summer that could take the form of print ads posted around the city and helmet giveaways. “We’re trying to determine a target audience for this campaign,” said spokesperson Nick Martin. “Perhaps young men since they’re the most frequent riders and experience the most frequent injuries.” (In the new study, men were 60 percent more likely than women to ride without helmets.)

In 2011, the Commission distributed 2,260 helmets for free or for a $5 fee.