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Encouraging bike helmet use with discounts, safety talks and a dorm challenge

Stanford's bicycle program coordinator tells students that most crashes occur one to three miles from home, so wearing a helmet is always a good idea.

Years ago, Ariadne Delon Scott was riding a mountain bike on a trail, misjudged a turn, flipped upside down and crashed.

"I didn't lose consciousness, but the thick foam in my helmet compressed to paper thin foam because it had absorbed so much of the impact," said Scott, who has served two stints as Stanford's bicycle program coordinator. "If I had not been wearing a helmet, I would have had a serious brain injury. I'm a big believer in helmets."

L.A. CiceroAriadne Scott, bicycle program coordinator at Stanford.

Ariadne Scott, bicycle program coordinator at Stanford.

Turning students who think wearing a helmet is "geeky" into believers is one of the goals of Parking & Transportation's bicycling program, which collaborates on bike safety programs with many departments, including Campus Planning, Residential Education, Public Safety, Bechtel International Center, Vaden Health Center, Stanford Medical School, Graduate School of Business and the d. School.

These days, Scott rides a steel gray Specialized bicycle – she once worked for the company, which is based in nearby Morgan Hill – for the commute to campus from her home in Los Altos.

"It's a more European-style bike that has integrated lights that run on a generator, a bike bell and a bike rack that I can hang saddlebags on – and load up with groceries on my way home," she said.

Scott rejoined Stanford in 2008, after working at Specialized Bike Components for five years. She had served as the university's bike program coordinator from 2001 to 2003. While her first stint focused on infrastructure – such as bike racks – her second has focused on strengthening educational outreach and partnerships.

Modeling good bike behavior

Scott, who hasn't owned a car for 22 years, said she tries to model good behavior by always wearing a bike helmet.

When she is talking about bike helmets to undergraduate students at Stanford, she uses graduate students as models of better behavior.

"During our bike safety presentations, we ask undergrads how many of them want to go to grad school and they all raise their hands," she said. "But are they wearing helmets? No. It's a challenge we tackle all the time. And we'll never stop."

In the university's 2012 commute survey, 11 percent of undergraduates who ride bikes on campus said they "always" wore a bicycle helmet, compared with 40 percent of graduate students who do.

In the survey, the undergrads checked several boxes to explain why they didn't wear helmets, including "I don't like helmet hair," "I am a careful rider," "None of my friends or colleagues wear a helmet" and "I don't own a helmet."

"It will be interesting to interview students after the Bike Safety Dorm Challenge to see what convinced them to wear a helmet," Scott said.

Students enter the challenge, now in its third year, by taking an online quiz and pledging:

  • To follow the rules of the road that apply to bicyclists under the California Vehicle Code.
  • To wear a bike helmet for every ride, even short trips.
  • To respect the rights of all road users, including motorists and pedestrians, in an effort to promote safety and generate goodwill.

The dorm with the highest percentage of pledges and the dorm with the highest overall number of student pledges will each win a free charter bus trip to Tahoe. The deadline for this year's challenge is Dec. 14. So far, more than 860 students have taken the pledge.

Scott said students who wear helmets seem to have had "some sort of epiphany" and decided they wanted to protect their brains – like the students living in Larkin, an all-frosh house, who decorated their black bike helmets with "I (heart) my Larkin lobes" stickers.

Discounts on helmets

Money should not be an impediment to wearing a bike helmet, Scott said, because several programs on campus provide steep discounts.

Kali Lindsay, '12, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a campus bike crash – and recovered – championed a program in 2011 to subsidize helmets in frosh dorms. Freshmen can now buy helmets for only $5 each with a subsidy provided by Parking & Transportation Services, Public Safety, Residential Education and Risk Management.

Under a program offered by Parking & Transportation Services, Public Safety and The Campus Bike Shop, students can buy helmets for $20 – a 30 percent discount. Scott said the shop sells more than 2,500 helmets a year.

"If you attend one of our free bike safety classes, the Stanford Department of Public Safety offers a voucher to buy a helmet for only $10," Scott said. "It's a great incentive on their behalf to make sure people wear helmets."

Scott said students are more likely to wear helmets because their friends are wearing them or because they heard a story about a friend who crashed.

"That doesn't stop us from sharing or reiterating our bike safety efforts, but it's a more powerful message when it comes from the students themselves," she said. "We started the Bike Safety Dorm Challenge, but we're letting the students drive it. We've had great support from the resident assistants in the dorms."

Scott said the university is always looking for ways to boost helmet use on campus.

On Oct. 30, Provost John Etchemendy and Medical School Dean Philip Pizzo stood on the corner of Santa Teresa Street and Lomita Drive with members of the Department of Public Safety flagging down bareheaded bikers. One deputy passed out Halloween candy. Another, coupons for steeply discounted bicycle helmets.

The Leland Stanford Junior Marching Band encouraged students to wear helmets during a halftime show at this year's Homecoming football game.

Band members ran in a giant circle, narrowly averting crashes, while the announcer encouraged freshmen to, "Look to your right. Now look to your left." The announcer's advice:  "Wear a helmet, and walk all large projects to your classroom."

New separated bike lanes and bike stop signs

With more than 13,000 bicycles on campus any given day, Stanford is like a small city, a place where bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists all need to practice common courtesy and respect to ensure safety for all.

In the past two years, Stanford has created several new bikeways for bicyclists alongside pedestrian pathways and sidewalks, Scott said.

One new bike lane runs down the center of the Tresidder Union parking lot, where pedestrians now claim the pathway between two rows of green hedges.

Another connects the Serra Mall bike path with a curving lane – framed by beds of lavender – that leads to the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.

Another connects Lomita Mall – between Santa Teresa Street and the Mitchell Earth Sciences Building – with Panama Mall, where bicyclists can turn left and continue on another two-way bike lane toward the Science and Engineering Quad.

The most recent improvement is at the intersection of Galvez and Serra. It has been converted into a four-way stop to provide more visibility for motorists, buses, pedestrians and bicyclists.

Under a pilot program, Stanford has installed mini bike-specific stop signs at strategic locations around campus – including the intersection of Escondido and Campus Drive – that remind bicyclists, "Bikes must stop at all stop signs."

Scott said students still ask, "If there's no traffic, do I still have to stop? We try to teach them to think of themselves as 'driving' their bikes," she said.

"If you get into the mindset that you're driving your bike, not just riding your bike, you'll do the right thing. As a driver, you would stop at a stop sign. As a driver, you would use lights. As a driver, you would signal when you're turning. As a driver, you would let a pedestrian cross the street."

Scott said the most common bike citations are handed out for not stopping at stop signs; not using headlights at night; not yielding to pedestrians; and wearing headphones covering both ears. All are violations of California law, which only requires helmets for riders under age 18.

Which brings her back to bike helmets. In bike safety presentations, Scott reminds students that most bike crashes occur within one to three miles from home. So a helmet is always a good idea. Scott said "helmet hair" is one of the top reasons why students – as well as university employees – don't wear helmets.

"We just have to make helmet hair 'cool'," she said.

Scott said suggestions on turning students into bike helmet believers are always welcome at bike-information@stanford.edu.