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Stanford students design musical helmets and lockable lights to promote bike safety

By Christina Farr | 23 Jan 2011

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Students in Stanford's d.school prototyped designs for music-playing bike helmets and lockable bike lights. (Photo: Christina Farr)

Deputy Adam Cullen was among the first on the scene last year when Yi-Chao Wang, a 25-year-old visiting scholar from China, was struck by a car while riding his bicycle home at night from a laboratory on the Stanford campus. Wang was not wearing a helmet. He died of his serious head injuries after lingering in a coma for two weeks.

“Every day, we struggle with the problem that students don’t want to wear helmets,” said Deputy Cullen, a member of Stanford’s Department of Public Safety. Unlike bike lights, helmets are not required equipment for riders aged 18 and over. Since 2005, Deputy Cullen said, his department has investigated more than 200 bike accidents.

Because there is no law requiring students to wear bike helmets, one possible solution is to design a helmet that students will want to wear.

And that’s exactly what multidisciplinary teams of graduate students did in an innovative workshop this month at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute for Design, more commonly known simply as “d.school.”

With a goal of improving bike safety, some 40 graduate students attended a week-long “design boot camp” as part of a class called “Design Garage: A Deep Dive in Design Thinking.”

Post-It notes are an integral part of brainstorming sessions at the d.school. (Photo: Christina Farr)

The evening classes were overseen by luminaries in the fields of engineering and design, including Associate Professor Perry Klebahn, chief executive of the bag, backpack and computer case company Timbuk2, and David Kelley, who founded IDEO, a company that pioneered the user-centered designer approach, and who later founded the d.school.

In just nine hours, the student teams created prototypes that included:

  • a helmet with open-air music functionality
  • a lockable bike light
  • a bicycle education welcome kit.

The creations were presented to a panel of judges at the end of the class.

“Multidisciplinary Contact Sport”

William Burnett, Executive Director of the Design Program at Stanford, said the course was intended to be a “multidisciplinary contact sport” that drew on the varied experiences of Stanford’s diverse student body.

Students interviewed dozens of bicyclists and car owners about their campus safety concerns. Common fears that arose were frequent accidents during rush hour and a lack of bicycle education for new students.

Representatives from Stanford’s Department of Public Safety said students often did not use bike lights, failed to obey stop signs, and rarely wore helmets.

Real User Needs

Three members from campus security judged each team’s final protoype. The officers said they were particularly inspired by a points system, modeled on the one that penalizes automobile drivers in California, that would reward law-abiding students.

Sargent Frank Hom said he would implement a raffle system. Burnett said he was impressed that the solutions addressed real user needs.

“In only nine hours, students came up with really insightful ideas,” he said. For example, he said, the students were inspired to create a lockable bike light after recognizing that bike lights were too easy to steal. “Someone is going to make money from this,” Burnett said.

Deputy Cullen said that the “cool” music helmet design could potentially save lives.

Circle of Death

The d.school's redesign of a busy campus intersection has cut down on the number of bike accidents there. (Photo: Christina Farr)

Tony Lai, a student in the Law, Science and Technology Program, was a member of the team that designed the helmet. He said he would apply design thinking to his professional life. “Designing a bike safety solution is about much more than creating helmets or lights,” he said. “I could apply the creative processes to my legal work.”

This was not the first time that students at the d.school have addressed the problem of bicycle safety. The corner of Escondido and Lasuen Malls, is known on campus as the “Circle of Death,” for the high number of accidents there.

In 2007, d.school students designed a roundabout to divert cyclists in two directions and reduce the number of head-on collisions.

Reporter Christina Farr, a graduate student in journalism, was a member of the d.school boot camp.

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