Enter, if you will, the glorious Bird Instagram page, a place of freewheeling joy and frivolity with more than 73,000 followers.
Scroll down, and you’ll find a seemingly endless stream of micro-mobility mania, from happy hipsters suspended in states of sun-kissed bliss to chic Parisians in cheetah print to a pair of newlyweds locking lips on their e-scooters, their image garnished with the most apt hashtag imaginable: “#LoveBirds.”
Amid all the fun, here’s what you won’t see much of, according to researchers at the University of Southern California: protective gear.
Based on their analysis, researchers say that 6.17 percent of the company’s Instagram posts over a nearly 14-month period ending in November “contained persons wearing protective gear.” Though almost 70 percent of Bird’s posts contained a person visible with a Bird scooter — many of them reposts from Bird users — “6.79 percent had protective gear somewhere in the post,” researchers found. Another 1.54 percent of posts mentioned protective gear in the comment box.
“While e-scooter companies, like Bird, should consider the importance of road safety, they have instead sponsored a bill that was recently passed by the California Legislature that allows adults to ride e-scooters without helmet,” the study points out.
Why so few images of protective gear?
Jon-Patrick Allem — an assistant professor at the University of Southern California who co-authored the study — has a theory: He believes images showing helmets and knee pads aren’t just uncool-looking, they also undermine Bird’s branding. That branding, he said, is designed to cast the company’s devices as the kind of accessories that are perfect for a laid-back, fun and liberating — yet environmentally friendly — lifestyle.
Allem said he gets it: Bulky helmets are a visual buzzkill. It’s not convenient or fun to include protective gear in your marketing when you’re selling a lifestyle brand. The problem, he said, is that omitting visual safety cues ignores the reality of how messaging influences behavior. That messaging is even more influential, he said, when it comes from an authority figure, such as a company that is at the forefront of a trendy, multibillion-dollar industry.
In recent months, emergency room doctors in cities across the country have reported seeing a wave of injuries among scooter riders, including broken bones and severe head injuries. Critics — including some former riders — have called on cities to ban the devices from local streets until they are safer and more regulated.
“Bird says they spend millions of dollars on communication that promotes wearing a helmet, but if you look at how humans learn, a lot of it comes from peer modeling,” he said, noting that it wouldn’t be hard to include images in which people are holding helmets. “When bird publishes hundreds of posts that suggest using your service without a helmet is okay, that’s a powerful modeling message.”
For months, Bird has said that safety is the company’s “top priority.”
In a statement about the USC study, Bird said the company offers riders an in-app tutorial that explains the need to wear a helmet, a free helmet to any rider who requests one, safety demonstrations and “targeted advertising with safety messages on social media platforms.”
“Posing beside a Bird should not require a helmet, just as posing by a parked car should not require a seatbelt,” the statement said, referring to social media posts that don’t include riders wearing helmets. “We welcome productive conversations around safety and ideas on how to improve the safety of everyone in the communities we operate in.”
“We have however found Instagram is not a platform best suited for rider education,” the statement added. “Instead, we have invested millions of dollars on providing online and offline rider safety programs.”