The reluctance of Stanford students to wear bike helmets is not a new issue. It is raised every year, and people continue to wonder why such an intelligent and informed community resists this common safety practice. Bike helmets are made available, alarming statistics are publicized and many helmet promotion efforts are undertaken, usually with limited effectiveness. The strategy of persuading students and decreasing the burden of using a helmet is not getting the job done. But members of the Parking and Transportation Services (P&TS) Bicycle Program have realized this and taken the right approach by developing a new program, one based on community norms, shared goals and positive peer pressure.
P&TS estimates that only 10 percent of undergraduate bicycle riders wear helmets; the figure for graduate students is twice as high at 22 percent, but still far from acceptable. Ask students why they choose not to wear a helmet, and you will hear the same set of answers over and over. Money spent on a helmet could be used elsewhere. They are inconvenient to carry around. It takes time to go buy one. It messes up your hair. But the most common response, by far, is that wearing a helmet is not the norm; this answer usually takes a form such as “I don’t want to look like a geek” or “no one else is doing it.”
Given that this is the most popular answer, it is not surprising that prior attempts to address the problem have been relatively ineffective. Helmets are sold at a discount and sometimes given out for free, presumably to address the cost and convenience complaints. Statistics on helmet use, accidents and fatalities are emphasized, but just as the majority of smokers are aware of the danger that habit poses to their health, students choosing to ride without a helmet generally know the risks they are taking. Similarly, the introduction last quarter of large, illuminated signs declaring “Helmets Save Brains” is unlikely to motivate the desired behavior change.
These efforts should not be eliminated, however, as they do provide some benefit. A free helmet may make the difference for a student with financial constraints, just as remembering an important statistic might encourage a few individuals to reach for the helmet hanging in the closet. But these measures do not address the core issue — the social norm against wearing a helmet.
The Bike Safety Dorm Challenge, launched by the P&TS Bicycle Program last quarter, is a big step in the right direction. Students joined the Challenge by completing a short bike safety quiz and taking the Stanford Bike Safety Pledge, which includes the commitment to wear a helmet for every bicycle ride. The program established a competition between dorms to achieve the highest rates of participation, with the winning dorm receiving a bus charter to Tahoe. Results of the Challenge, released early this quarter, are very promising. Over 600 students from 40 dorms joined the program, and several dorms achieved participation rates above 80 percent. Two houses, ZAP and Phi Sig, had 100 percent participation. And to discourage cheating, P&TS deployed Sprocket Man, its bicycle safety promoter, who disqualified the dorm of any Challenge participant spotted without a helmet.
This program was successful precisely because of its creative approach. It operated not by convincing students that they should wear helmets, but by altering incentives so that they actually wanted to. The Challenge presented the Tahoe bus as a motivator, but an equally powerful factor was the temporary culture change it created. The leading dorms actively encouraged participation, to the point that it became socially unacceptable to not wear a helmet.
Individual dorm results, available on the P&TS website, support this conclusion. While nearly half the residences on campus did not participate at all, those that did generally showed a high level of involvement, and the top 10 had an average resident participation rate exceeding 80 percent. This suggests that past a certain threshold, participation in the program became the norm.
It is important to monitor the permanence of this effect, however, as there is no guarantee that the norm has changed for good in these dorms. The P&TS Bicycle Program should follow up with an anonymous survey of Challenge participants, asking why they were motivated to join the program, whether they actually wore helmets throughout the quarter, and whether they have maintained the habit. This feedback will be valuable as the Bicycle Program continues to explore strategies to foster a norm of helmet use, both within dorms and in the broader Stanford community.