If you grab a dockless bike or scooter from a city sidewalk to run an errand, you’re unlikely to wear a helmet, at least in part because you’re unlikely to have one on hand. Wheels, a startup that makes shared electric bikes that can zip down streets at 18 miles an hour, now offers a free helmet locked on the back of each bike.
“The data is overwhelming that helmet use is the best way to make micro-mobility safer, and we believe that integrating the helmet directly into the bike is the most practical and best solution to make this a reality,” says Joshua Viner, Wheels CEO.
Scooters seem particularly risky. One study of 249 patients injured on scooters in Austin found that around 40% had head injuries, and two patients had head injuries severe enough to end up in intensive care units. The researchers found that 94% of riders in the area rode without helmets; only one of the injured patients was wearing a helmet. Other studies have suggested that a helmet can reduce the risk of a head injury by 48%, and the risk of a serious head injury by 60%. Over the last two years, at least 12 people in the U.S. have been killed while using dockless scooters. In traditional bike share, injuries are less common, perhaps because the bikes tend to be clunky, slow, and more visible.
Though Wheels calls its vehicle a bike, it’s similar to a scooter. (The company claims that it’s designed for safety, with bigger wheels than a typical scooter, a seat, and a lower center of gravity.) But the speed means that there’s probably more potential for injury than on a regular bike.
The helmet is designed to lock on the vehicle’s rear fender, and when riders rent the bike, they can use the company’s app to unlock the helmet. The fit is adjustable, and there’s a biodegradable liner inside that peels off so it’s clean for each rider (there are replacement packs in the helmet).
“We knew from the beginning that we wanted to include a helmet with the bike, but we went through a lot of iterations in our lab before landing on this design,” says Viner. The company plans to continue iterating on the design.
At the moment, it’s a rare offering. Boston tested a helmet vending machine for its city bike-share system in 2013 but didn’t continue its use. In Seattle, where bike helmets are required by law, the local bike-share program was offering free helmets but has since closed down. The scooter company Bird tried giving away thousands of helmets, but didn’t find that it actually made riders more likely to use them. While several companies have tried to design helmets that are more portable—making it easier to have one on hand for a spontaneous ride—they’re still rarely used. Vancouver, where helmets are locked to bikes in the city’s MobiBike share system, may be the only other place where helmets are as easily accessible.
While cyclists often argue that helmets aren’t necessary—and that the biggest factors for safety are things like street design and enforcing speed limits for cars—it’s arguable that scooters are a somewhat different case, since injuries often happen on sidewalks or when someone falls on the road without any involvement from a car. And it makes sense for companies to give bike and scooter riders the option to easily use a helmet. Wheels hopes that the idea spreads. “We strongly support policies that will increase helmet usage by riders, and applaud any company that helps make that happen,” Viner says.
Correction: We’ve updated this article to correct the top speed of the Wheels bikes.