Bixi bikes in Montreal. No helmets.
Since the drive to bring the Bixi bikesharing program to Toronto began in July, the cycling scheme has become a cause célèbre the city's cycling community.
To speak ill of the program is to draw the wrath of the downtown core's latte-sipping, ecofascist elite, or whatever the stereotype being used to describe NOW's readership is these days.
But for all the benefits of the city-sponsored program (and there are many), it seems there's a piece missing. While Bixi pushers like to hype the spontaneity available when bikes are on offer around town, the operation strikingly doesn't provide helmets for last-minute cyclists.
It's a failure that's creeping out Dr. Tarek Razek, the trauma program director at the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, where Bixi first launched in spring 2009.
He is raising red flags about the safety of a program that will unleash thousands of new bikes on city streets, but is doing little to promote protection of the all-vulnerable noggin.
"I don't know that [the Bixi plan]was well enough thought through, given the knowledge and data on helmet use and how critical it is in terms of preventing significant brain injuries," he says.
"It would be wonderful to see other cities that implement the program look at innovative ways to increase access, decrease cost, and increase knowledge and awareness about the importance of helmet use.'' It will benefit everybody."
We've all heard the public service announcements, but as a reminder of how important wearing helmets are, Razek says cyclists sporting head protection reduce the incidence of major brain injuries by 84 per cent. He's seen first hand the tragic results of crashes that don't involve helmets, and in the past year and a half, he's seen several involving Bixi bikes.
Each year in Toronto, over 1,000 bike accidents are reported to police. So far this year, three of them have been fatal.
Dan Egan, manager of the pedestrian and cycling infrastructure for the City of Toronto, is part of the municipal team working with Bixi to establish the program haere by spring of next year. He says there are inherent problems with offering helmet rentals to Bixi users.
"First of all, a helmet has to fit a person," he says. "It has to be hygienic, so if you have 400 people sharing helmets, the chances of spreading lice or anything else is much more likely. It has to be clean."
The logistics of ensuring these criteria are met are too difficult to manage, Egan insists.
But surely a program that prides itself on innovation could find a way to make helmets a component of Bixi rentals. After all, ski resorts rent out helmets all the time, and there haven't exactly been outbreaks of lice on the slopes of Blue Mountain recently.
Instead, Egan says that the city has always promoted helmet use and will continue to do so once Bixi launches.
For its part, the only mention of head protectin on Bixi's website are a paltry two lines in their FAQ section, which say users are not required to wear helmets by law, but "it is the only effective means of protection against head injuries. BIXI therefore encourages you to wear a helmet when biking."
Razek said he's floated the idea of having Montreal Bixi users receive government subsidies towards purchasing helmets at local retailers. He suggests helmet rental kiosks should at least be set up in high-tourist areas because tourists are one of Bixi's target markets and travelers are unlikely to be dragging around their own protective headgear.
They are likely to be dragging around kids however, and cyclists under 18 are required by Toronto law to wear helmets.
Subsidizing helmets would be costly of course, but the cost of lifelong care for a patient with a serious head injury is in the millions of dollars. That could buy a couple of truckloads of head gear down at Mountain Equipment Co-op.
There's one thing that people on both sides of this debate agree on, which is that helmets are not the single best way to promote cycling safety. Studies show that having more riders on the streets actually decreases the chance of accidents, something that Bixi will probably help with.
Another effective strategy is to shape the city's infrastructure to accommodate cyclists. Building bike lanes, and separating bike lanes from traffic, would certainly make riders safer. But unfortunately cyclists aren't going to get much help with that over the next four years, as Rob Ford's made his views on cycling accidents clear (he's against them, but they're mostly riders' fault).
Helmet use is, of course, an issue of shared responsibility. The ultimate choice is up to riders. But by failing to increase access to helmets along with increasing access to bikes, Bixi and the city are, at worst, encouraging unsafe cycling, and at best missing out on a golden opportunity to promote a practice that could save taxpayer money and lives.