MOTIVATING HELMETS: How To Convince People To Buckle Up

There is little question that if you have a bicycle accident, and if your head gets banged, and if it isn’t so severe that you’re dead anyway, then your injuries are likely to be significantly less severe if you are wearing a helmet.  I once had a dent in an old helmet that proved the point to my own satisfaction.

And I’m amazed at how often anti-bicycle people use a cyclist’s uncovered head  as “proof” of the rider’s immaturity and irresponsibility – thereby justifying the critic’s condemnation of everyone who bikes.

But how to convince people to put the helmet on?  

Research says that the most common non-compliance reasons are that the person doesn’t own a helmet, that it feels too hot, that they don’t like the way a helmet makes them look, or that it shouldn’t be needed for short trips. Boston is using several strategies to provide high quality helmets at little or no cost, with the Boston Cyclist’s Union playing a major role.  Hubway is working with an MIT team to create helmet vending machines to place next to their stations although there are lots of technical deployment issues still to solve.


While helmet-refusal occurs among all age groups, races, and genders the people least likely to use bike helmets are ages 18 to 24:  college students, although teenagers aren’t far behind.  As usual, this is not an income-neutral problem:  Boston’s Public Health Commission is increasingly disturbed by the numbers of low-income kids arriving in Emergency Rooms with split skulls.  It’s a complex situation, especially since the evidence suggests that requiring helmet use reduces the number of people willing to bike, thereby undermining two key public health benefits of increased cycling:  the huge public (and individual) health benefits of that activity (of particular relevance to low-income children) and the “safety in numbers” dynamic that lowers the rate of car-bike accidents as the number of cyclists increases.

My teenage son was once caught cycling with his helmet hanging from the handlebar.  “I took the helmet,” he told his mother, “and if I fall I’ll put it on.”  Would it have been better to punish him for the safety violation or to applaud his health-promoting willingness to be “uncool” by traveling outside of a car?  Or just appreciate his sense of humor?


The definition of “coolness” does change.  Last winter I went downhill skiing for the first time in many years.  Besides the amazing improvement in my ability to remain upright caused by today’s short, hour-glass skis, the most surprising change was the huge percentage of younger skiers who were wearing helmets.  What happened?  Probably Xtreme Sports.  Snowboarding tournaments feature young athletes doing incredible stunts – and wearing helmets.  The same kids who do downhill watch those events on TV.  TV makes the athletes celebrities and therefore cool, so wearing helmets became cool, too.

On the other hand, skateboarding contests also require participants to wear helmets, but that doesn’t seem to have flowed over to street behaviors.  It is likely that higher-income demographics of skiing families play a role.

Still, sometimes habits sometimes change, even when triggered by official requirements.  The first attempt to mandate seatbelts in Massachusetts sparked a Tea Party-like right-wing revolt against this “attack on our freedom.”  Even today, not wearing a seatbelt is a “secondary” violation for adults in Massachusetts – meaning that you can only be cited if you’ve been already pulled over for some other reason.

But my kids grew up with seatbelts and they wear them without question.  Now, it even feels funny to me to sit in a car without buckling up.  As does riding a bicycle without a helmet – I absentmindedly took off the other day and suddenly realized that the wind in my hair felt good but disconcerting.  I went back and put on the helmet.


Some people say that requiring helmets may cause a temporary drop in ridership but will lead to long-term acceptance.  I doubt it.  Teenagers under age 16 are already legally required to wear helmets, a fact they mostly seem to ignore.  Perhaps increased enforcement might raise their compliance rate (is that what we really want our police to spend time on?), but I suspect it’s more likely to simply turn more of them into scoff-laws.  And college students are generally convinced of their own immortality as well as secure enough in their class privileges to generally ignore or flaunt the rules.

So swinging sticks is probably not the best strategy.  How about carrots?  Some cities have “helmet reward” programs where police give coupons for ice cream or other treats to kids they see wearing a helmet.

Bribery is nice, but probably of limited impact.  What would it take to make bike helmets “cool?”   This requires methods of linking directly into the culture of the groups we’re trying to communicate with.  We can learn from the skiers:  perhaps the spread of bicycle racing might have the same effort as snowboarding, creating local celebrities who inspire emulation – especially if the races are televised (CCTV?).  So maybe the Public Health Commission should put some energy (and money) into sponsoring bike racing teams at local High Schools!

Or what about rap stars performing in a bike helmet?  Ok, not a go….

Maybe we can learn from the anti-smoking campaigns.  It wasn’t the pictures of diseased lungs that turned teenagers’ heads.  It was making smokers look socially stupid – the boy leaving the bathroom after a quick butt with toilet paper stuck to his shoe:  “stupid for two reasons.”  Anti-drug educators went for the gross:  the fried egg as “your brain on drugs.”


Fear also works – horror movies are big hits among that age group!    The Boston Public Health Commission is working on a campaign showing a young person’s bruised up face asking “still think helmets will mess up your hair?” with the tag line: “there are no good excuses.”

But scaring people about the dangers of bicycling without a helmet may undermine the larger benefit of getting more people to cycle.  Already, the primary reason people give for not bicycling is that it seems dangerous – mostly because of the proximity of cars.  Maybe we should be trying to increase the fear of dangerous behaviors among car drivers rather than bicyclists!

The best approach is to combine the negative and the positive.  How about a campaign around the slogan:  “Does she like your pretty face?  Keep it that way!” — showing someone after an accident, or maybe contrasting the happy couple with the lonely injured one.

Which brings us to the real motivator.  Of course.  Sex.  It seems to sell everything else. Here are some possible slogans — “Don’t forget your protection as you ride over for your date!” or “Only fools take chances with life, and with death – stay protected outdoors as well as inside!”  or “Keep your head intact…..”

This could be fun!


Related previous posts:


>SAFETY AND THE LAW: When Are Higher Penalties The Right Tool For Changing Behaviors

>SHAPING TRAVEL CHOICES: The Four C’s of the Behavioral Context

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