Two years ago, MIT undergraduate Paige Finkelstein survived a potentially deadly biking accident because she was wearing a helmet. To help keep other cyclists safe, Finkelstein founded Project Helmet, an initiative to distribute free bike helmets to the MIT community — which has seen rapid success.
Finkelstein started the program during this year’s Independent Activities Period, earning a grant for 80 bike helmets and producing a campus-wide ad campaign that even attracted participation from MIT President L. Rafael Reif.
The project’s success culminated at the annual Transportation Fair in the Stata Center on March 13, where Finkelstein set up a Project Helmet booth with sister, Ali, an MIT freshman, and gave away all 80 of the initial helmets to MIT cyclists — in roughly 15 minutes.
“Nothing really could have prepared us for the overwhelming number of people who had come. Project Helmet has been a huge success,” says Finkelstein, a junior majoring in chemical engineering.
Finkelstein says more than 200 people have emailed her asking for helmets in the past two weeks. Luckily for those safety-conscious folks, Finkelstein is in the process of buying more helmets — which she may have to offer by lottery, she says.
Project Helmet’s story began in 2011: While Finkelstein was cycling in one of Boston’s bicycle lanes, she was, as it’s called, “doored” — she struck the door of a parked car, which the driver had opened suddenly into her path. She flipped off her bike and blacked out. “I was riding my bike and there were no moving cars around. The next thing I knew, I was sprawled out on Beacon Street, and could hear the sirens approaching,” Finkelstein says.
Having been rushed to the emergency room, Finkelstein was told by doctors that wearing a helmet had saved her from serious brain injury, and possibly death. “Ever since that day, I gained a new perception about how important bike safety is. Accidents could happen to anyone, including me — and I learned the hard way,” Finkelstein says.
Indeed, Finkelstein, more cognizant of bike safety, returned to MIT and began noticing fellow student cyclists not wearing helmets as they biked around campus in a rush, heading to classes and labs. Thus, Project Helmet was born to accommodate the busy MIT student body.
“Even if students were just crossing campus on a bike, it’s like they didn’t realize that anything could happen,” Finkelstein says. “I realized if I was going to help my community, I was going to have to bring the helmets to them, rather than expect them — between problem sets, meetings and everything else — to prioritize their own safety.”
Spreading the message
In February, Finkelstein created an ad campaign that raised significant support for her cause: She hung poster-sized photos around campus of MIT students who had survived cycling accidents, each posing with a written message stating how wearing a helmet had saved their life. President Reif and MIT Chancellor Eric Grimson also posed for a couple photos, holding messages that promoted bike safety — a welcome surprise, Finkelstein says.
“It was really refreshing to be reminded of how much [the president and chancellor] actually care about the students here and were willing to take time out of their day to help out — as they put it — a ‘great cause,’” Finkelstein says. “I think having them involved certainly validated Project Helmet because so many people ended up noticing the posters and telling me how much they appreciated them.”
Moving forward, Finkelstein plans to work with the City of Cambridge to install signs at the crosswalk outside the MIT building at 77 Massachusetts Ave., warning cyclists they must stop at when the light is red. “Too many student pedestrians are getting hit because bikers don’t realize they must follow the rules of the road too,” Finkelstein says.
She is also looking to design storage systems for bike helmets on campus to make owning a helmet more convenient for MIT students. MIT’s Parking and Transportation Office is helping Finkelstein develop both projects.
For more information and photos visit Project Helmet’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/projecthelmet