Bird encourages its riders to wear helmets, but the company’s Instagram tells a different story.
Just six percent of Bird’s posts on Instagram featured people wearing helmets or other protective gear, according to a new University of Southern California study. Researchers analyzed the 324 posts on Bird’s Instagram account published between Sept. 22, 2017 and Nov. 9, 2018. Bird has about 69,000 Instagram followers.
The company offers free helmets to any rider who requests one and its in-app tutorial emphasizes the need to wear a helmet. That message is not reinforced on social media, which is perhaps the most influential source of information for young riders, said Jon-Patrick Allem, an assistant professor of research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC who co-authored the study.
“People learn behaviors by looking at what their peers are doing,” Allem said. “It endorses that it’s okay to ride without a helmet and use these scooters without safety in mind.”
Allem said Bird’s views on safety have not been short-sighted. Rather, he believes the company has focused too much on a long-term vision.
“When I talked to Bird, their position is that cultural shifts will occur that will make society and road design conducive to e-scooter riders,” he said. “When you think about how long that will take to occur, those aren’t safety solutions that can keep up with a disruptive technology.”
Before these societal changes take place, Bird should promote safety through channels that reach its users, most of whom are younger, Allem said. For example, he said, the company could post photos of riders wearing helmets on Instagram.
“Young people are exposed to products through online platforms, and Instagram is especially influential,” he said. “That would be one avenue to consider promoting safety in addition to putting ads on the back of buses in Santa Monica.”
Bird, along with three other e-scooter companies, entered into a pilot program with the City of Santa Monica in September. The program requires Bird to create interactive safety education for users and increase the availability of helmets for riders at the time of use.
Safety is still a concern, however. Santa Monica hospitals see a steady tide of scooter-related injuries and several residents joined a class-action lawsuit filed in October in Los Angeles County Superior Court that accuses Bird and other e-scooter companies of gross negligence and aiding and abetting assault because scooters often crash into pedestrians.
A Bird spokesperson said the company has invested $3.5 million in providing online and offline rider safety programs but believes Instagram is not a platform suited for rider education.
The spokesperson said only six percent of photos on its Instagram contain images of riders in motion without helmets and pointed out that the study does not account for whether riders featured on its feed were riding Birds or posing next to them.
“Posing beside a Bird should not require a helmet, just as posing by a parked car should not require a seatbelt,” the spokesperson said.