Bicycles have long been involved in a disproportionate percentage of traffic accidents. Those who commute regularly by bicycle understand the dangers posed by cars, buses and taxis on Chicago streets. Distracted driving is also a growing problem and presents potentially life-threatening risk to even the most experienced and skilled bikers.
A bike-sharing program like Divvy that encourages unprepared, inexperienced riders to go helmetless through a city they may not be familiar with could be a recipe for disaster. This “ride at your own risk” policy seems shortsighted and dangerous.
According to its website, Divvy riders are encouraged to wear bike helmets, to make sure the helmet fits snugly with a buckled chin strap, and to make sure it is worn level on riders’ heads. While Divvy offers its members a discount on helmets and other accessories at participating bike shops, Divvy does not provide helmet rental with the bike rental.
The Divvy bike-sharing program has enabled more than 10 million riders on Chicago streets since its inception. It is setup to provide bike rentals in Chicago year-round. In fact, according to the Chicago Tribune, last year Divvy expanded further into the South and West Sides and now has more than 580 stations and nearly 6,000 bikes available locally. According to the Tribune there are currently no plans for additional expansion this year.
Given the popularity of the program, further expansion can not be unexpected and it raises the question of how many of those 10 million-plus rides involved a bicyclist wearing a helmet. How many were undertaken by riders who knew the biking laws of Illinois? How many involved a rider who was able to confidently navigate Chicago’s busy urban environment? The company running and profiting from the Divvy bike program, Alta Bike Share, must be aware of the safety concerns surrounding its service.
“These are extremely important issues regarding bike safety for cyclists riding Chicago’s streets,” said Chicago trial attorney Mark McNabola. “There are numerous statistics showing how dangerous it is to ride a bicycle without a helmet.”
In February, CBS 2 reported there are about 1,500 bike versus vehicle accidents a year. The report noted that the number of crashes with injuries have increased by more than 150% since 2000. And, from 2005-2010, 32 cyclists in Chicago were killed in crashes with vehicles. Of the 32 bicyclists killed, 31 were not wearing helmets.
In April, DNAinfo Chicago reported that dooring crashes — where the door of a parked vehicle was opened directly in a bicyclist’s path — rose about 50 percent from 2014 to 2015. According to data released by the Illinois Department of Transportation, 202 bicyclists were doored in 2014; in 2015 that number rose to 302 (an increase of almost 50 percent) in only one year.
Six Chicago bicyclists were killed in crashes during 2016, according to City data. That included 25-year-old Divvy cyclist Virginia Murray of Wicker Park. She was struck by a flatbed truck at Belmont and Sacramento Avenues as they both tried to turn east on Belmont. According to police reports Murray was wearing a helmet at the time of the crash, but despite that safety measure, her injuries were fatal. The incident was the first-ever fatality within the Divvy system and likely the first time in U.S. history that a bike-sharing rider was killed while on a rented bike. In April, Quartz reported that of the 30 bike-sharing programs in cities across the country, no fatalities had been reported.
According to a 2016 Tribune report, there have been 37 Divvy crashes in 14.1 million miles over 6.6 million trips traveled since the program began in Chicago on June 28, 2013. Chicago Magazine last year reported that comes out to 560 crashes over 100 million trips.
In the U.S., 21 states have laws requiring riders under 18 to wear helmets. Surprisingly, Illinois does not have a helmet law. While Divvy forbids minors under the age of 16 to ride its bikes, and a minor who is 16 or older only may use the services if “the minor’s membership is subscribed for by, and the minor is under the responsibility of, the minor’s parent or legal guardian,” according to the Divvy website, Divvy does not require that its riders wear helmets and does not make helmets available to its riders. Divvy provides a safety guide to riders who pay for an annual membership, but does not provide the guide to those who buy daily passes.
Alta is certainly aware of issues surrounding Divvy bike accidents. A consumer visiting a Divvy kiosk is required to agree to a lengthy waiver before rental of the bike is permitted. The City of Chicago insisted that Alta indemnify it against lawsuits involving injuries caused by the bikes. Interestingly, Alta kiosks in Boston will soon be equipped with vending machines where riders can rent or buy helmet for their journey. It is difficult to measure the safety practices and knowledge of Divvy bike users compared to other bicycle riders in Chicago. Most likely, people who do not have their own bikes will not have their own helmets. In addition, experienced riders may be less likely to rely on unfamiliar equipment to get around. While Divvy has had success getting inexperienced riders onto bicycles, the unintended consequence of that effort includes injured pedestrians, dooring accidents and car-bike collisions.
The responsibilities of the parties directly involved in these collisions is not clearly defined where the bicyclist is bike-sharing. Illinois law grants bicyclists the same rights and responsibilities as anyone operating a vehicle on city streets. The potential responsibility of those companies distributing the bikes is less clear. The realities of the Divvy bike program and programs like it in other cities raise questions about the safety of the bicyclist as well as members of the general public.
Anyone, regardless of their level of experience, can rent a Divvy bike and ride on the streets of one of the busiest cities in the world. The question of whether users should be required to wear helmets and/or demonstrate basic knowledge of bike safety is worth posing. The cost to implement and enforce such requirements must be considered as well. As the number of riders increase, the current “ride at your own risk” policy seems shortsighted.