Helmets, cars, and bike share

November 2, 2014

Once upon a time when bike share was proposed for cities like New York and Boston, there was much hand-wringing and pearl-clutching about all those inexperienced cyclists riding around without helmets (except for Hitler; Hitler knew that mandatory helmets for bike share would kill bike share). Boston even went so far as to install helmet vending machines to deal with bike share’s “big safety problem”.

But earlier this year, someone totaled up all the bike share rides in this country (and they can count them for real, because each ride comes with rental data), and in 23 million rides, there was not a single fatality.

So do we still think that bike share needs helmets? Then surely, any other activity with a higher fatality rate and a high rate of head injuries also needs helmets. Let’s see, driving, a fatality rate of 1 in 10.9 million trips, and severe head injuries involved in 41% of fatalities. In 23 million car trips, we’d expect over two fatalities, and a 65% chance that at least one of those fatalities involved a severe head injury.

So are we rational about risk, or not? (And this is not even total risk, this is just risk of violent death, as opposed to death by nonviolent cancer, heart attack, and stroke.) Why would we promote helmet use for bike share, but not for drivers in general, when the measured risk of fatal head injury is definitely higher for drivers?

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