It is safe to say that the reception to the Capital Bikeshare program has been enthusiastic. The New York Times commented on CaBi. Alexandria, Falls Church, Montgomery County and Prince George's County may get in on the program. Grist reports that Gabe Klein, director of the District Department of Transportation, wants to expand the program to 2,200 bicycles.
But 2,200 bicycles doesn't necessarily mean 2,200 helmets.
"In terms of distributing helmets on the street or through a machine, no one's been able to work that out," said Jim Sebastian, supervisory transportation planner for DDOT. He cited health department concerns, space, and distribution mechanisms as factors that put a helmet-sharing program out of reach.
David Canor maintains The WashCycle, a D.C. bicycle transit blog where some commenters have raised concerns about CaBi users riding without helmets. Canor says that for his part, he wouldn't trust a helmet-sharing program even if one were in place.
"If someone fell and cracked their helmet and put it back, you would never know," said Canor, a CaBi member.
Strictly speaking, DDOT does not have to encourage CaBi riders to use helmets: Helmets are not mandatory under District law. Or federal law. Thirteen states have no bicycle helmet laws on the books, and most helmet laws that do exist address underage bicycle riders, not adults. Nevertheless, DDOT has partnered with three bicycle shops -- Bicycle Space in Mount Vernon Square and the Bike and Roll shops at Union Station and Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street NW -- to offer discounts on helmets to new CaBi riders.
Canor has his doubts about the safety premium typically assigned to bicycle helmets. Or rather, he says helmets are regarded as providing greater safety than they actually do. A helmet could prevent a concussion in an accident or curb a more serious concussion than might have happened without a helmet, he says. But many riders do not wear them correctly, and a rider wearing a helmet incorrectly does not get much more in the way of safety than points for the effort.
At their best, helmets can only do so much, said Canor. He believes that overall, prevention efforts like wearing reflective gear are much more important to bicycle safety -- and underemphasized.
"I don't think [wearing a helmet is] by far the most important safety feature," said Canor. "You could make the argument that sunscreen is more important than a helmet."
Some would disagree -- including Melissa Barton of the American College of Emergency Physicians, who told CBS New York that wearing a helmet is the "single most important thing" a bicycle rider can do.
While there is no way for DDOT to enable helmet-sharing, the agency intends to expand the number and type of stores where CaBi members can buy discounted helmets. Sebastian said that DDOT encourages office managers to provide loaner helmets to employees who use the program. DDOT is even prepared to give helmets away.
"We give out hundreds of helmets a year, mostly to youths," said Sebastian. "We can get into giving bicycle helmets to adults, especially those who can't afford them."