Scott seeks parents’ help in getting students to wear bike helmets

There are an estimated 13,000 bicyclists pedaling around on the Stanford campus each day. Many don’t wear helmets. Stanford bicycle program coordinator Ariadne Scott talks about the university’s efforts to get students to wear helmets and practice safe bicycle habits—and about how parents can help.

Photo of Ariadne Scott
Ariadne Scott, Stanford bike coordinator (Photo: Linda Cicero)

Why do we have trouble convincing students to wear bike helmets?
Many don’t recognize that a helmet can save their life and brain function. Results from our surveys show that Stanford bicyclists cite minor barriers for not wearing a helmet:

  • they don’t like helmet hair
  • none of their friends or colleagues wears a helmet
  • they are a careful rider
  • helmets are inconvenient to carry and store

At one time, people cited similar reasons for not wearing seatbelts. Drivers would say they didn’t want to wrinkle their clothes or that they were good drivers. Even today, people who are 16 to 24 years old have a lower rate of seatbelt use. They see themselves as invincible. While a crash doesn’t happen every day on campus, when it does, students will either wish they were wearing a helmet or be grateful that there was a helmet between their head and the pavement.

What is the argument that you cite?

Stanford students are the best and brightest in the world, and their exceptional brain helped get them into Stanford. My question is: “Why risk injuring your brain when there is an effective way to prevent it?” David Spain, chief of trauma and critical care surgery at Stanford, says that if you look at people who get a head injury riding a bike, 98 percent weren’t wearing a helmet. Wearing a helmet reduces the risk by 85 percent. He also says that you’re 20 times more likely to die with a head injury. Ruptured spleens, ruptured diaphragms, broken legs, broken arms—these can all be fixed. We can’t fix the brain.

Photo of lots of bikes
There are an estimated 13,000 bikes on the Stanford campus daily. (Photo: Linda Cicero)

Testimonies from students also help. For instance, Kali Lindsay, who graduated in 2012, crashed during her sophomore year while on her way to an appointment with a tutor. She wasn’t wearing a helmet. She recalled getting out of bed, and the next thing she remembered was her parents coming to the hospital around 2 a.m., more than 12 hours later.

Witnesses said she fell from her bike between her freshman dorm, Larkin, and Meyer Library, hitting her head on the right temple. She sustained epidural hematoma, an injury involving bleeding between the skull and brain. The injury caused initial short-term memory loss and dizziness, which prevented her from reading for almost two months, forcing her to take the rest of the quarter off.

When she returned to school, she helped create a program that provides a helmet subsidy for freshmen. The FROSH helmet subsidy enables students to purchase a $20 helmet for only $5. The subsidy is funded by Public Safety, Parking & Transportation Services, Risk Management and Residential Housing, with logistics handled by the Campus Bike Shop.

Do students have other bad bike habits?

Yes. According to data collected from a student project a few years ago, most bike crashes on campus are attributed to bicyclist error, not the result of a car versus bicycle incident. Bicyclist distraction—talking on a cell phone, texting, drinking coffee—has caused crashes into fixed objects or another bicyclist or pedestrian.

We know from citations issued by the Department of Public Safety that the top three bicycle violations are for not stopping at stop signs, not using a front bike light after dark and having both ears covered while riding, typically with phone or music earbuds.

In our outreach and educational programs we share the rules of the road that are mandatory for bicyclists under the California Vehicle Code. If bicyclists fail to follow the rules of the road, there are consequences. The Department of Public Safety issues citations, and fines can be as much as $200 for failing to stop at stop signs. For bicyclists who are cited, we offer a one-time option to attend a free bicycle safety class in lieu of paying the fine. Since 2008, more than 100 classes have been taught and more than 3,500 riders have attended.

What kind of programs does your office offer?

We have programs and incentives to encourage bike safety, including an annual Bike Safety Dorm Challenge, bike safetyphoto of student with a bike helmet road shows, bike safety stations, free bike safety classes and a free front bike light and rear reflector for new students who register their bicycles through our office.

What can parents do to help?

Parents can help their students realize the potential consequences of not wearing a bike helmet. Tell your children that you love them and do not want to see them hurt or needing to leave school due to a bicycle injury. It can work. One student said his motivation for wearing a bicycle helmet is that he doesn’t want to put his parents through the pain of losing him or caring for him if he were to be in a bicycle crash.
Become better informed by viewing our bike helmet testimonies online. Dr. Spain and Randy Livingston, Stanford’s chief financial officer, offer powerful testimonies on helmet use.
Parents know best what will work to convince their student to practice bike safety, but here are some approaches that could help:

  • Ask your student to wear a helmet for every ride, and find out what barriers he or she faces to wearing a bicycle helmet.
  • Be familiar with the bike safety incentives and resources available at Stanford, including bike safety classes and presentations, and ensure your student knows about them, too. Visit our bicycle information and our Love your brain web pages, and share the links with your student.
  • Give your student a supply of bike light batteries or a new battery every year. Students often have a bike light, but it doesn’t work simply because the battery died and students didn’t bother to replace it.
  • Help them see that bike safety is worth the effort. Dr. Spain notes that failing to wear a bicycle helmet risks the biggest investment you will ever make in your life—your education.

Parents can contact Scott at