Wearing a helmet has not been an easy habit to instill for most electric scooter riders. Lugging a bulky helmet around doesn’t seem to fit with the free-and-easy image conveyed by this sassiest of micromobility devices. And, indeed, relatively few users don the protective headgear: One survey, from the specialized mobility insurance company Voom, claims that 80 percent of e-scooter users don’t wear a helmet consistently, and a spot-check of riders around any major city will confirm that impression.
Now Bird is encouraging helmet use by tapping into the formidable behavior-influencing power of selfie culture. The e-scooter company launched a new program, “Helmet Selfie,” to incentivize people into wearing their brain armor. Taking a helmeted self-portrait photo in the app at the end of the ride allows users to receive future ride credits.
It works a lot like how scooter companies nudge riders into proper sidewalk decluttering by shooting a photo of their parked scoot clear of the pedestrian right-of-way. After the app’s “computer vision technology” verifies that a photo isn’t pulling a headfake on the company, free rides and other incentives will follow. The company is also encouraging people to post photos to social media with the hashtag #BirdHelmetSelfie.
The new pilot is starting in Washington, D.C., and then rolling out to other cities that request it going forward, encouraging city leaders to reach out via email in the press release. The company is also setting up an online “safety marketplace” to sell safety devices, such as reflective clothing and personal lighting, as well as helmets.
“Bird and the cities in which we operate share a number of common goals, including but not limited to improving the safety of all road users,” said Paul Steely White, the director of safety policy and advocacy at Bird, in the press release. “[The program] is a direct outcome of ongoing conversations we’ve had with our partner cities, safety experts from leading academic and research institutions, as well as leading innovators in the helmet and safety protection industries.”
The helmet issue has long dogged e-scooter companies, particularly their reluctance to mandate—or even show—helmet-wearing among the users of their services. Last year, the Washington Post reported that the Bird’s Instagram feed was “devoid of helmets.” Researchers found that less 7 percent of the images posted over 14 months before last November on Bird’s account included any protective gear.
That murky message seems to reflect what’s happening on the streets: A UCLA study of emergency room injuries in Southern California found that only 4.4 percent of scooterists hurt were wearing helmets. Another study earlier this year by the CDC and Austin’s Public Health agency found that less than one percent of e-scooter riders had been wearing helmets before they landed in the ER, and about 45 percent of the incidents involved head injuries.
The new campaign is an obvious Band-Aid for those marketing optics, and it comes just after the National Transportation Safety Board encouraged states to implement mandatory helmet laws for bikes. Alongside other, more welcome recommendations, like improving protective infrastructure and clearer road markings, that hard-headed suggestion earned a collective eye-roll-emoji from micromobility fans and city officials.
Reviewing the @NTSB Bicyclist Safety Counter Measures presentation:— Greg Billing (@gregbilling) November 5, 2019
✅ protected bike lanes
✅ promoting visibility
❌ mandatory helmet laws
Citing the bare heads of cyclists in progressive European cities, bike advocates have long argued that draconian helmet requirements just end up discouraging the shift away from cars and reducing the “power in numbers” effect of more bikes (and presumably, scooters) on the street.
“While requiring helmets may seem like an intuitive way to protect riders, the evidence doesn’t bear this out,” said Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, in a statement directed at the NTSB decision. “Experience has shown that while bike helmets can be protective, bike helmet laws are not.”
While smarter infrastructure would do more to protect riders, the scooter companies—and the cities they operate in—can’t just wait for all those separated lanes to get built. Scooter companies also want to get in front of the problem before more states get any ideas about regulation, gesturing towards what they can do to make riders safer now. “While the most effective way to reduce safety incidents is to improve infrastructure,” says White, “we also want to help improve adoption around helmet usage to reduce injury severity in the event of an incident.”
The safety debate that has swirled around e-scooters since their arrival in the U.S. has not subsided, but the industry as a whole now seems more aware of the issue. Most scooter companies have programmed safety tips and required driver’s licenses and parking in their apps; some offer free safety courses. Helmet giveaways have probably been the most simple and visible PR win for these companies: Over the last 18 months, Bird gave away 75,000 helmets in cities, while its competitor Lime promised to give away 250,000 helmets within the first six months of this year.
But anyone with their own helmet knows how easy it is to justify leaving the dorky hardhat at home. Whole startups have been built around trying to make folding helmets and/or casual-looking caps into a cool fashion statement. If you won’t listen to your parents’ constant pleas, maybe slapping a scooter brand on influencers’ heads will help the message sink in.