Sunday, July 20, 2014

Divvy: all good fun until somebody gets hurt

     The city recently marked the first anniversary of its Divvy bike-share program with characteristic self-congratulation: “I encourage everyone to celebrate this milestone by getting on a Divvy bike and going for a ride,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel, trotting out the statistics — 1.6 million trips taken, 250,000 day passes sold, 23,000 annual members signed up, including yours truly. I’ve taken over 100 jaunts on the Divvy this past year. It’s a fun, convenient, healthful way to get around town.
     But ...
     In one regard the city has failed in its rollout of the Divvy program, by downplaying the importance of wearing a helmet. Perhaps because bothering with helmets cuts down on usage. Perhaps because they spoil the carefree, hip mellow Divvy is driving for. Perhaps — my theory — that Divvy doesn’t make money from renting helmets, yet.
     Go on Divvy’s website and find barely a whisper about the need for helmets, a bit tucked at the end of “Riding Tips.” Divvy is acting too much like a private business and too little like a responsible part of civic life.
     Not that I’m the Welcome Wagon for bike helmets. I didn’t own a helmet for the first 35 years of my life, having grown up in the era when we drank from garden hoses, rode in the beds of pickup trucks and played with lawn darts.
     But after having kids, I realized that if I wanted them to be wearing
their helmets when some careless motorist came blasting out of a side street, I’d better wear one too.
     It’s a big honking Bell helmet, the kind with the vaguely insectoid shape that makes it bigger and harder to haul around. But I do wear it, mostly. I wore the helmet when I met the mayor for a Divvy ride and was surprised that Rahm, usually attuned to optics, had no helmet. Maybe helmets poll poorly.
     My policy: Try to wear one. Usually. Shoot for 90 percent. OK, 75 percent. But sometimes I’ll go for a ride helmetless.
     I’m beginning to wonder if even those occasional breezy-haired trips are unwise. According to a new study, “Public Bicycle Share Programs and Head Injuries,” in the American Journal of Public Health, comparing cities with bike-share programs to cities without, head injuries increased 8 percent over three years, as a proportion of all injuries, in cities with the programs — to more than half of all serious bike injuries — while decreasing 4 percent in cities without them.
     “These programs are great because they promote physical activity, but at the same time they should really offer helmets on-site because this is a matter of public safety,” Dr. Ellen Omi, a trauma surgeon at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, said.  
     Fewer than a quarter of bike riders wear helmets, according to the National Injury Prevention Foundation, a statistic that conceals a bit of good news: Most people ride without helmets and most people are fine. Head injuries are quite rare. Helmets are like seat belts; you don’t need them at all until the moment you need them a lot.
     I asked Divvy spokesman Elliot Greenberger if there are any plans to encourage helmets more.
    “We’re exploring options to make helmet rental or purchase more readily available near stations,” he said in an email. “However we haven’t committed to firm plans. Helmet rental technology is quite new, so we’re looking at technologies being rolled out in other cities as possible options.”
     Until then, Divvy is offering members $10 off certain helmets. A start. But what they really need to do is put some of their marketing muscle, which they had no trouble using to push that special red bike, into urging riders to wear helmets.
     Greenberger said that “out of over 1.6 million Divvy trips served in our first year, we’ve had fewer than 10 incidents reported to us, none of which were serious.”
     “Trips served.” Like they’re McDonald’s.
     A good record. But that also means the serious incident is coming. Don’t let it be you. The bottom line on helmets: They’re a bother and you could view them as a waste.
     Or you can view helmets as a reverse lottery. Some poor soul is going to be cut off by a cab and bounce off Wacker Drive on his head, leading to the severe, long-term, possibly fatal brain injuries that Omi warns of. Buying and wearing a helmet is your ticket not to be that person, laboriously learning to speak again at the Rehab Institute.
     And when that happens to someone, which it certainly will, it’ll partially be the fault of Divvy, the city of Chicago and Emanuel because they could have done more to promote helmet use, but didn’t.


  1. Meh!
    A couple of weeks ago, a British neurosurgeon said wearing a helmet is useless.
    Now I've been riding a bike on the streets in Chicago for over 50 years. Never wore a helmet & never will.
    If I wore one, the sweat you see pouring from my head would triple under those heat entrapping hunks of plastic & foam.
    Plus with my bad knees, who knows how much longer I'll be riding.

    1. I'm all for helmets. But there's a huge logistical problem w/ providing them for Divvy: so many riders of different ages (sizes) @ differing locations (ferrying bikes is major logistics) & as you say, helmets are bulky, so storage probs @ locations. Urge a competition among tech students to create a safe adjustable material that can nest (stack). JMFendrych

    2. I agree. That's why their efforts should go into encouraging members who use them regularly to wear helmets, before worrying about tourists from Sweden riding once.

    3. Yes, definitely urge regulars & already-owners to use their helmets. But what about people who might choose unplanned biking point-to-point. & Chicago economy needs tourists, from Sweden & everywhere -- how would accident w/o helmet accessibility do for tourism publicity? BTW motorcycle helmets should be mandatory, for the safety of other road-users as well as their own. JMF

  2. So let's review your logic: recently somebody overseas said something your own personal experience confirms, ergo the case is proved. Sort of paltry, aint it? Meh yourself.

    The drawback of offering your experience as proof is that other people -- sorry to be the one to tell you they exist -- have other experiences. Here's an email I got yesterday, one of many:

    Just wanted to share a story with you about what happened to me last summer. I was taking a nice bike ride on a beautiful day, and was not going very fast, maybe 10 mph, down a narrow local sidewalk (in the suburbs its not illegal to do that) when I saw an oncoming biker approaching. So I tried to get off the sidewalk to make way, and when I steered off I lost my balance and I found myself going headfirst into a telephone pole. I am of a certain age (like you), and had never had any kind of injury biking in all those years, but I did end up going headfirst directly into the telephone pole. Fortunately, I had my helmet on tightly, and while the impact cracked the helmet, I was fine. I swear I didn't even get a headache afterward, though I did get a busted wheel out of it as well.

    The lesson for all bikers is to always wear a helmet that is properly and tightly fitted, because you never know what can happen next. The tight fitting is important because the top of my head never hit the top of the helmet - the force was distributed evenly around the side of my head, which really saved me.

    Happy biking, and keep banging the drum about helmets. Divvy needs to do much more on that front.

    1. A few years ago I crashed my Suzuki Bandit 1200 in southwest Wisconsin. As a result of the crash my helmet was scratched deeply from just left of my jaw area, diagonally across the visor to an area around my right temple. Let's just say I am glad I was wearing it.
      I bicycle also. I do a regular run from 5100 S. Lake Shore Drive to North Avenue Beach and back on the lakefront bike path several times a week. It is roughly 18 miles round trip. When I started riding bicycles this spring, I scoffed at the idea of wearing a helmet to ride a bicycle.
      "Absurd", thought I. While motorcycling, of course! A big, bad powerful-engine driven two wheeler requires it. A bicycle? We rode those constantly in the late 60s and through the 70s with no helmets, knee pads, etc., which are de riguer these days. Back then there were no bicycle helmets. (It was the same in professional hockey, btw!).
      I crashed my bicycle in May, not wearing a helmet or any other protective gear. While I did hit my head gently on the asphalt, it was not hard contact, only hard enough to knock off my RayBans and send them flying. The rest of me fared much worse, with road rash from the palm of my right hand all the way down the underside of my arm to the shoulder, plus the right side of my torso, plus extensive bruising/contusions from my hip to my knee. I still have scars from the road rash and pain on my hip from this accident. This happened while I did a shoulder check to see if anyone was approaching from behind and my front wheel dropped into a pothole groove in the bike lane and sent me sprawling. The asphalt has since (finally!) been repaired, just last week.
      Like you said, Neil, you don't need a bicycle helmet until you really need one.
      I went out and bought a Bell Giro, flat black paint over a styrofoam shell. Not as badass as the solid black, cannonball looking things some hipsters wear, but a whole lot cooler (something to really consider!), with lots of points of entry for a cool breeze. It is not uncomfortable to wear at all. It is also fully adjustable by way of a little wheel at the back of the helmet so you can get the fit perfect. I recommend one. You can buy one at Village Cycle in Old Town.
      The other thing I bought which is indispensable for the traffic I see on my route is a $5 bicycle bell. I come across tons of people each day who don't respect the bike lanes, walk out in front of your bike with little kids, think that because they are on a charity walk they get to use both sides of the bike lane, people from out of town/out of the country who have no clue what's going on, and the little bell let's them know you are approaching and prevents unnecessary braking and accidents.
      I know it's only a bicycle, but I have seen three crashes in the last 3 months, two pretty severe, with a head injury and road rash to the face.
      A good deal of you bicyclists out there may ride in the 'burbs, with much less traffic. If I rode there, I probably wouldn't wear a helmet.
      The Chicago Lakefront bike path is a genuinely dangerous route, I have learned. I always wear my helmet.

  3. Reply above belongs here. . . page didn't open fully to show end of discussion. . . . JMF

  4. I got a helmet with my newest bike last summer, after many years w/o a bike at all. I purposely chose the type of helmet that looks like the motorcycle helmets worn on "Sons of Anarchy" so I would at least THINK it looked cool. I ALWAYS wear it, no matter how long or short my ride. It's easier than trying to make a choice of when to wear it or not. 53 years old, still trying to look cool...but not too cool for a helmet.

  5. My family rented bikes from a private company in SF last October. Doing research it was clear that you were not allowed to ride without a provided helmet from any company. I just don't see how Divvy or the city will be protected from a lawsuit once a serious injury occurs.

  6. When the Divvy program first started, I thought a good move would've been to send a free or discounted helmet to anyone subscribing for the yearly? option. Might work now.

  7. several years ago i proved several laws of physics while riding the north branch bike trail (objects in motion tend to stay in motion..., irresistible force meets immovable object, etc.). ended up in lutheran general ER with a collarbone busted in two places and a helmet with three great big cracks in the styrofoam.
    i've been pretty religious about wearing my helmet ever since.

  8. divvy must have done the math and said that helmets and their hassle weren't worth the eventual lawsuit from said Swedish tourist

  9. Just returned from a few days in Door County during which I passed countless portly gents on oversized motercycles wearing jeans and T-shirts with heads unadorned or wrapped in bandanas. The odds that any one of them will suffer painful and/or disabling injuries are perhaps long, but much, much better than winning the lottery. Concussions that turn you into a vegatable are far from unheard of and what happened to a young couple I knew some years ago who skidded on a patch of fresh tar while riding dressed for the beach gave me a permanent horror of what pavement of any kind can do to bare skin sliding against it. In Europe, where narrow streets and high gas prices make motorcycles and bikes practical means of transportation rather than expressions of manliness, everyone wears helmets and protective clothing. I assume its the law.

  10. I hate those sci-fi looking helmets. I am not a paid endorser, but there is a cool helmet out there. It's called "nutcase". I got mine online and pestered my local bike shop to sell them instore. They didn't pay me for all the extra business now, either.

  11. As both a cyclist and motorist is the city, I think one thing would do more than helmet wearing to preserve the safety of cyclists. Specifically, cyclists should make some attempt to obey the vehicle laws, to which they're fully subject when riding on public streets. This isn't to suggest that helmets shouldn't be worn in all cases, but rather that cyclists simply can't go out on the road with pure hearts and empty heads, and expect everyone else using the roads to ensure their safety.


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