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Study Finds Bike Shares Increase Proportion Of Head Injuries; Seattle To Offer Helmets

Bebeto Matthews
AP Photo
FILE - In this Tuesday, June 25, 2013, photo, a biker rides without a helmet on a Citibike, as part of New York City's bike sharing system, in New York.

New research suggests that bike share programs have a downside, but the program Seattle is launching this fall will have a key feature that could help mitigate it.

Researchers from the University of Washington and Washington State University looked at bicycle injury data from 10 major cities, both with and without bike share programs. They found that when a city gets a bike share program, a higher proportion of injuries to its cyclists are head injuries. 

In those cities, bike-related injuries actually declined after the program was implemented, but head injuries declined less. In a program's first year, if you got hurt on a bike, it was 14 percent more likely to be a head trauma than in cities without programs.

Author Janessa Graves, assistant professor at the WSU School of Nursing who is affiliated with the Harborview Injury Prevention Research Center, said it's not totally clear what causes the shift, but one obvious culprit is that bike share programs generally don’t offer helmets.

“We really applaud cities that have these programs to encourage people to be physically active and get outside. But wellness programs like this are lessened if critical safety programs like helmets aren’t available,” she said.

Those helmets will be available in Seattle, thanks in part to the city’s mandatory helmet law. Seattle’s program is thought to be the first in the world to roll out helmet rentals citywide.

Pronto Emerald City Cycle Shareexecutive director Holly Houser said each bike kiosk will have a dispenser.

“It looks like a vending machine. The helmet sort of drops down into kind of a mailbox bin where you pull open the door and grab it,” she said.

The helmets will cost $2 to rent, and will be sanitized and inspected after each use.

The injury study is published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Editor's note: This story has been edited to more clearly reflect the findings that head injuries rise as a proportion of overall bicycle injuries, rather than increasing generally, after cities implement bike share programs.

Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.