As bike-sharing programs gain in popularity, a timely study from the American Journal of Public Health finds that cyclists utilizing a bike-sharing program in Washington, D.C., are much less likely to wear helmets than their counterparts riding personal bicycles.

Capital Bikeshare photo

Capital Bikeshare (Photo by Tricia Warin)

Researchers from Georgetown University’s School of Nursing and Health Studies set out to assess helmet use among users of the region’s popular Capital Bikeshare program. A total of 2,297 cyclists were observed. Of these, persons using Capital Bikeshare at times and locations consistent with being a daily commuter had one-fifth the odds of helmet use compared to riders using their own bicycles.

“This research suggests that bike-sharing programs should invest effort in helmet promotion activities. Some have suggested mandatory helmet laws, and past research suggests that helmet laws would likely increase the proportion of cyclists wearing helmets, but they may also impede the use of bicycle-sharing programs,” said the study’s authors.

According to an article from U.S. News & World Report, “As larger cities like New York City and Chicago prepare for new bikesharing operations, the study raises questions about if — and how — bikeshare systems should promote helmet usage.” Critics fear that bike helmet laws could impede use of the bicycle sharing program, as bikeshare systems are designed for convenience, and riders may not wish to carry a helmet all day for taking only one or two five-minute trips.

“Helmets aren’t a cure-all, of course — better bike infrastructure tends to make cycling significantly safer, after all,” wrote a blogger on DCist. “But the author of the study argues that given how unpredictable riding a bike can sometimes be, a helmet is the simplest way to stay safe.”