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Bike Sharing: How Safe Is It?


Renting bicycles as a means of transportation in cities has been popular in Europe since the 1990s, but the trend only caught on here in the U.S. nearly two decades later when Washington, D.C., launched this country's first major bike sharing program in 2010. Since then, more than 34 cities nationwide have established bike share programs, with many universities including bike share rentals on their campuses. After some delays, Atlanta's bike share program is expected to roll out this summer, and will include 500 rental bikes at 50 or more docking stations across the metro area.

One reason that bike share programs were slow to cross the Atlantic was funding: total cost per bike rental is approximately $5,700 when the bike, docking station, and software are all factored in. Another reason is cultural: the U.S. is very much a nation of drivers, with less of a tendency to use public transportation than its European friends. A third reason is safety: how safe would it be to rent bicycles to anyone and everyone and turn them loose on city streets?


It turns out that it is very safe. Statistics show that cities with bike share programs see a marked decrease in cyclist injuries. Bike share program statistics are consistent with this surprising and somewhat counterintuitive fact: bike share cyclists have fewer accidents and injuries than ordinary cyclists. The question is: why?

Researchers interpreting the data theorize that the design of the bike share bikes may unintentionally have helped the safety of the program. The bikes are heavy and durable, with big tires, and are not designed for speed. They are manufactured in bright colors with lights so they are highly visible.

The other safety advantage of bike share programs are the cyclists themselves. People renting bikes tend to be new cyclists or people who are not expert at cycling--otherwise they would own their own bike, so the theory goes. Contrary to making these cyclists safety risks, their lack of expertise makes these novices extra cautious and therefore safer than the average cyclist.


There is one safety issue that has plagued bike share programs from their inception: how to make helmets easily available so that cyclists can and will wear them. There is no question that wearing a helmet while bicycling greatly reduces the chance and severity of head trauma in an accident. People may disagree about exactly how protective helmets are, and whether their use should be mandated by law, but there is no serious disagreement about the fact that when in an accident, a cyclist wearing a helmet stands a better chance than one without.

The puzzle of how to provide convenient, clean and cheap helmets for bike share riders was finally solved by MIT students in late 2013. HelmetHub, a Helmut vending machine, opened in docking stations in Boston. The vending machine allows riders to rent helmets when they rent their bikes, and drop the helmets off whenever and wherever they drop the bicycles off. The helmets are collected, cleaned, and returned to the vending machines for rental. Seattle has a similar rental program utilizing the HelmetHub technology; helmet use by cyclists of all ages is mandated by law in Seattle.


Despite the safety record of bike share programs and the increased availability of helmets, bicycle accidents happen and when they do, injuries to the cyclists can be severe. If you or someone you know has been involved in an accident with a bicycle and a motor vehicle, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

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