Should DecoBike Make Helmets Easier To Get? Study Finds Increased Head Trauma Risk

DecoBike, Miami Beach's 3-year-old bike-share program, has been a stirring success, with more than 1.5 million rides logged on the blue-and-silver cruisers just last year. But spend half an hour watching cyclists zipping around South Beach and you're about as likely to spot a bear on a unicycle as you are a rider wearing a helmet.

Is there a risk to putting thousands of riders on the road without pushing more of them to wear safety gear? One new study suggests that yeah, there might be.

In a paper published this summer in the American Journal of Public Health, the authors looked at trauma center data from five cities with bike-share programs -- including Miami Beach -- and five without. They found that in the bike-share cities, the percentage of head-trauma cases related to bicycle accidents rose by 14 percent.

"We did see a rise in the risk of head-related injuries," the study's lead author, Janessa Graves, an assistant professor at Washington State University, tells New Times. "There should be consideration of making helmets more easily available for bike-share riders."

Miami-Dade County law requires anyone under the age of 16 to wear a helmet while cycling, but everyone else is free to choose whether to don the gear. DecoBike offers free helmets to anyone who wants one, says Colby Reese, the company's chief marketing operator, but riders have to head to DecoBike's headquarters at 7th Street and Washington Avenue to get one.

In some other cities -- including Boston and Seattle -- bike shares have automatic helmet dispensers at some stations.

The various programs gave Graves and her team a prime subject to study the link between head injuries and cycling. By working with the National Trauma Data Bank, Graves was able to get stats for a range of cities with the shares and without.

The study, Graves readily admits, is limited in scope. The team couldn't match the statistics with any data about how bicycle use had changed in cities with bike shares, and the data they received from trauma centers covers all bike riders in the city, not just bike share members. And the numbers also suggest that, overall, cities with bike shares have fewer total cycling-related trauma injuries -- including fewer head injuries overall -- which could support advocates' claims that having more bikes on the road attunes drivers to them and makes roads safer.

But the fact that the percentage of head injuries clearly rises in towns with bike shares should be enough to at least start a conversation about helmets, Graves says.

"There's just a question of basic awareness about helmet availability," she says.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink