Lehman Health Sciences Professors Publish Study About Technology Related Distracted Bicycling and Helmet Use Among Manhattan Cyclists

Prof. Danna Ethan

A new study co-authored by two Lehman College Health Sciences professors reveals that the majority of Citi Bike riders in Manhattan are failing to wear helmets, possibly leaving themselves open to greater risk of head injuries. Riders were almost four times more likely not to wear a helmet on rental bikes than non-rentals, and women were less likely to don a helmet than men. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) head injuries are involved in about 60 percent of bicycle fatalities and are the most common cause of death and serious disability in bicycle-related crashes.

The study, co-authored by Professors Danna Ethan and Glen D. Johnson of Lehman’s Department of Health Sciences and Corey H. Basch, an associate professor of public health at William Paterson University, also found that while biking through the city, some cyclists were distracted by wearing headphones. While the number of riders found to be wearing headphones was relatively low, the professors suggest that “given the prevalence of both distracted walking and driving…these behaviors may very well increase and more attention may need to be paid to this public health issue.” Men were twice as likely as women to be wearing headphones or earbuds. Relatively few riders were seen texting or talking on their mobile phones.

The study’s authors observed nearly 25,000 cyclists across five popular riding areas in Manhattan. The study was modeled after a pilot study on helmet use by Professors Ethan and Basch. The researchers recorded cyclists for 50 hours using a digital video camera during the summer of 2014. They coded the video to determine the number of cyclists wearing headphones/earbuds, those using mobile phones and helmet use. “It was also noted if the cyclist was using a Citi Bike, personal bicycle or other rental bike,” according to the study.

“I would like to see more quality research around barriers to wearing helmets,” said Professor Ethan. “I don’t think we have a full understanding of why many people, particularly bike share riders, do or don’t wear helmets—and that’s a big piece of the puzzle.”

Ethan also believes that a more detailed look at the reasons why people are riding Citi Bikes could yield better information leading to greater bike safety. In this most recent study, Ethan and her colleagues found that helmet use was significantly higher during the weekday morning commute than both weekday recreational and weekend biking.

According to Citi Bike statistics from August 2014, the program’s total number of annual subscribers is 93,184, and Citi Bike riders took an average of 34,176 rides per day. Ethan praised the program for an increasing attention to helmet safety. Citi Bike members receive a voucher for a reduced priced helmet from “any bike shop in the city” and have partnered with Bike and Roll, a chain that offers one-day helmet rentals from any of their Manhattan locations. The New York City Department of Transportation also distributes free helmets.

The researchers would like to see the city continue to focus on and develop strategies that shift social norms around helmet use. They discovered that technology distracted riding like the use of earbuds was higher in certain parts of the city than others. Few riders know that state law prohibits bicyclists from using more than one earphone “attached to a radio, tape player or audio device” while biking. Ethan suggests that more public education or even signage reminding riders of the little known law might be effective in some neighborhoods.

Ethan’s colleague, Glen Johnson hails the increase in city biking as a tremendous advancement for public health and the environment but also advises caution. “We must also be aware of the hazards of cycling,” said Johnson. “Public education is needed to remind people of the need for helmets, especially when it is easy to forget when casually renting a bicycle for short trips.”