Helmet or no Helmet

For those who have worked in the active travel sector for some time will testify to, the debate about helmets or no helmets, is a seemingly never-ending discussion.

If you are reading this in Australia, New Zealand amongst other countries, then it’s not up for debate.  You are legally obliged to wear a helmet when riding a bike but over here, most of Europe, Asia and the rest of the world, it’s a different story.

I recently saw the excellent #bikeisbest campaign – which is a huge step forward for the industry – key partners coming together for the greater good.  Amongst all the incredibly positive feedback and comments, I kept seeing people complaining that some of the campaign creative showed cyclists without helmets. Likewise, I am sure it is a debate that occurs within each procuring authority and bidding supplier and from my experience, it certainly does. It even cropped up in a discussion about e-scooters the other day.

What are we trying to achieve?

Think about what we all want to achieve, whether you are a bikeshare operator, supplier or a regional authority – we all want higher levels of ridership and all the good stuff that comes from more people on bikes.  It goes without saying that we want to achieve the growth safely, but is mandating or promoting the use of helmets going to help or hinder levels of adoption?

Changing behaviours and driving growth

Across most parts of the UK, bikeshare is still either non-existent or a relatively new addition to the town and city landscapes.  As a marketer by trade, when you enter a new market with a new product, one of your ambitions is to remove barriers to the product.  Obviously, you plan the network to suit the anticipated demand, build up a picture of the target audience, from early adopters to the wider segments.  You plan the pricing, the product structure, engagement plans, the marketing planning including the key messages, the customer experience and many, (many) other things.  Ultimately what you are planning for is to make it as easy as possible for someone to use the service – removing all of the known barriers.

Certain customer segments will take more encouragement to get them to try the service.  Hence all the proactive operators engage early, offer free rides, events and other tactical promotions to encourage people to try (and hopefully like) the scheme.

In my opinion, this is where the helmet complicates things.  If you mandate or focus your communications around encouraging your riders to wear a helmet, it can do several things, especially for the occasional or less confident rider: 

  1. It can make them question the overall safety of what they’re doing.  If you were handed a parachute when checking-in for your flight (or told to bring your own), how will it make you feel?  Extreme analogy I know…
  2. What impact will it have on ‘impulse rides’ when users spot the opportunity to just hop on a bike and get to their destination, but realise they don’t have a helmet with them?
  3. Do images of models wearing helmets exclude some audiences as they don’t associate themselves with ‘that type of rider’ and soon enough their perceptions of the scheme becomes that of one for the more experienced cyclist and not the person jumping on a bike at the station to get across town to meet a friend.
  4. Does it just add another barrier because of the cost of a helmet?  I know you can buy a decent helmet for £20 but it’s still £20 someone can spend elsewhere, plus you’ll have to shop around for one, plus it will have to fit properly and then you will have to carry it around. Another reason not to engage. 

Ultimately, it can give somebody enough of an excuse not to break their habit and stick with their usual travel patterns.

From research in which I have been involved and research I have read, it is apparent that a significant barrier to usage is the general perception of safety when cycling.  Roads and drivers were mentioned more than the need to wear a helmet, as were poorly lit canal paths. Hopefully, the positive changes we are seeing to the road infrastructure will help to give more confidence to those that need it, than the need to wear a helmet every time they ride a bike.  Surely this is the bigger issue to overcome.

So let’s stop creating barriers and let more people enjoy the amazing benefits that cycling and bike share provide to riders, as well as the overall benefits to society, in terms of public health, the environment and reducing congestion.

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