Electric scooters are being hailed as the next major trend in urban transportation. Companies like Bird, Skip, and Lime have thousands of dockless scooters for rent in major cities across the world. But with the growing number of scooter riders, the number of scooter accidents has risen as well. While there are no official statistics available, there have been a handful of scooter-related deaths worldwide, and emergency rooms say they have seen an uptick in scooter-related broken bones and head injuries. And that’s not counting cuts and bruises that don’t require an ER visit.
However, scooter companies often cite safety as a top priority after major incidents. For instance, in October, a class action lawsuit was filed against Lime and Bird in California on behalf of injured riders, alleging that the companies distributed scooters that weren’t able to withstand daily use and abuse, and that the devices did not include adequate safety information. In response to the suit, Lime told the San Jose Mercury News that safety has always been “at the very core” of the company’s business, and Bird said in a statement that “safety is our very top priority.” But according to a new study focusing specifically on Bird, there’s a mismatch between what the company says about safety and the the message it sends through its Instagram account.
The researchers, both affiliated with the University of Southern California, analyzed Bird’s 324 Instagram posts between September 2017 and November 2018. About 69% included people, and just 6% of those photos showed riders wearing protective gear. And a measly 1.5% mention safety anywhere in photos’ captions.
The account also reposted photos from users riding without safety gear, which, the researchers write, signals to its 70,000 followers “that Bird approves of customers riding without a helmet.”
When asked for comment on the study’s findings, Bird reiterates its commitment to safety. “Bird is continually expanding our safety education materials and currently takes a number of proactive and tangible measures to encourage the safe and responsible use of our vehicles,” the company told Quartz. “Posing beside a Bird should not require a helmet, just as posing by a parked car should not require a seatbelt. We have however found Instagram is not a platform best suited for rider education. Instead, we have invested millions of dollars on providing online and offline rider safety programs.”
If you look at Bird’s Instagram, most of its photos are of hip young people looking like they’re having fun. Sometimes, though, they seem to be having fun in a way that would threaten their own safety, like wearing a bird costume, riding with a dog, or filming while scootering — and the videos they post suggest they’re doing more than just “posing beside a Bird.” And then there’s this person, who is at least wearing a helmet:
Other companies’ social media accounts appear more focused on promoting safety. The bulk of photos on the Instagram accounts of Spin and Skip, for example, show riders wearing helmets; Lime’s account includes a mix of helmeted and unhelmeted riders. Unlike Bird, Spin, Skip, and Lime have several posts specifically dedicated to encouraging helmet use.
Promoting helmet use may not be a net positive for scooter companies’ bottom line; while scooters can be rented on-demand, helmets may not always be available, so companies might have some financial incentive to look the other way on helmet use. And in fact, earlier this year, Bird sponsored a bill in California that changed existing law, making it legal for riders to scoot sans helmet. Other areas, like Atlanta, Georgia and Austin, Texas, did not have existing laws about helmet wearing when scooters first appeared in their cities, but are now considering adding them in light of scooters’ popularity.
Of course, Instagram is just one platform scooter companies use; for instance, Bird’s website features its free helmet program front and center. If these companies are truly dedicated to safety, however, their social media accounts would be a good place to promote those beliefs. “Research has demonstrated that the ways companies promote and demonstrate use of their product or service through social media influences consumer behavior,” write the study’s authors.
This story has been updated to include comment from Bird.