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Politics

New bike-share initiative lacks one thing: helmets


Published:   |   Updated: June 20, 2013 at 07:28 AM

TAMPA - Tampa's planned bike-share program promises to put bikes in the hands of people working and living downtown and in Ybor City.

The rugged bikes will come with baskets, lights and electronic locks. They won't, however, come with helmets.

In that respect, Tampa's bike-share initiative, which will launch in November, is similar to all the others taking root in New York, Chicago and smaller cities.

A study of bike-share programs in Boston and Washington, D.C, found that 80 percent of riders went without helmets. By comparison, more than 50 percent of cyclists riding their own bikes on city streets wore helmets.

In both cases, the bike-share programs encouraged people to wear helmets and suggested places to buy them. But they didn't offer helmets with the bikes, said Christopher Fischer, an emergency medicine doctor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He led the study of helmet use by bike-share participants.

Fischer said he was inspired to do the study by noticing all the people using Boston's Hubway bike-share network. Few wore helmets.

"It raised some concern," he said.

Bike helmets are supported by pediatricians and emergency room doctors. In his study, Fischer noted that bike helmets cut the risk of brain injury in crashes 65 percent to 88 percent.

Despite that, Florida law makes bike helmets voluntary for anyone older than 16.

As Tampa Bike Share gears up, organizers are trying to integrate helmets into their planning. For example, people who buy bike-share memberships will get a $10 voucher for a new helmet, said program director Andrew Blikken.

The Tampa Downtown Partnership will offer bike-share members a bike safety seminar complete with a free helmet or safety vest, said Karen Kress, the partnership's director of transportation and planning.

The Tampa Police Department will also mount a bike safety campaign as the bike-share program kicks off to remind both cyclists and drivers of their responsibilities, said Tampa police spokeswoman Janelle McGregor.

Will all these steps increase the number of bike-share riders using helmets? That's not clear.

The casual nature of bike-shares - they give people a way to run errands or play tourist - works against the use of helmets, Fischer said.

"Most people who are touring around the city are not carrying around their bike helmets," Fischer said.

Then there's the "ick" factor associated with renting a bike helmet, no matter how thoroughly it's cleaned beforehand.

Boston is home to Helmet­Hub, a startup company founded last year to supply helmets to bike-share riders from a kiosk. Each kiosk holds 36 helmets that are rented for $2 a day.

They're collected and sanitized at the end of each day, said company founder Chris Mills, a 2012 graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"We've gotten a lot of interest from around the country," Mills said.

Tampa cycling advocate Jim Shirk said helmets are less a priority for bikers who will be going slowly and using bike lanes or sidewalks to stay out of traffic.

"We're not focusing on helmets," Shirk said. "I've ridden in D.C. and Toronto, and helmets don't seem to be a problem."

Mayor Bob Buckhorn has plans to add bike lanes to Ashley Drive, North Boulevard, Palm Avenue and other city streets. Plans are also underway to add a bike lane beneath the Selmon Expressway linking the Tampa Riverwalk with the Channel District and, eventually, Ybor City.

One goal of those bike lanes is to lower Tampa's ranking among the deadliest cities in the U.S. for cyclists and pedestrians.

Shirk said adding bikes to the streets will also help - by raising awareness among drivers.

Fischer still thinks an emphasis on helmets would help keep bike-share riders safe. The more cyclists on the road, the greater the odds people will be injured in bike crashes, he said.

"The biggest concern is, it's not always the person on the bike that's responsible for the accident," he said.

kwiatrowski@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7871

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