About 75 percent of the riders on Bryant Street in Palo Alto had on helmets during a random count in late July, while only slightly more than half of the riders on the path behind Town and Country Village wore them. In Stanford's White Plaza, a measly 25 percent of bicyclists chose to protect their pricey brains.
"I don't want my hair getting messed up," said 22-year-old Pamela Krayenbuhl, who then smiled and conceded the foolish "vanity" of her decision.
People find helmets uncomfortable, don't like lugging them around and believe they mess with their look, Omar Barba of the Campus Bike Shop said.
Many bikers object to helmets due to what teens call their "dorky" appearance, he added.
Other cyclists reason themselves out of wearing protective gear. Some people just don't think they're going to crash, especially if they're not going far.
"I've heard the argument, 'I don't go very fast,' which I don't find very compelling," said Richard Swent, Palo Alto Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission chairman.
"Some people don't believe helmets give adequate protection. But if it's properly fitted, fastened and adjusted, it can do a lot," he added.
More than 3,000 Palo Altans commuted to work on a bicycle last year, according to the City of Palo Alto website.
"Palo Alto is a bike-driven town. We want people to use alternative modes of transit. A lot of kids ride their bikes to school," said Sergeant Robert Bonilla, supervisor of the police traffic division.
The police department does not keep statistics on bike accidents or the number of riders they send to emergency rooms every year. But fatal accidents happen with some frequency.
In February, visiting graduate student from China Yichao Wang died in an accident at Stanford. He was bicycling along Palm Drive when he hit a car. He was not wearing a helmet, according to a California Highway Patrol officer quoted in the Stanford Daily.
Skateboarders, too, have experienced their share of tragedy. A skateboarding fall in April took the life of Tim Sullivan, a Gunn High School graduate and student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He was not wearing a helmet.
State law encourages helmet wearing, mandating it for everyone under 18, according to Bonilla. Officers will issue a citation for young cyclists who are not wearing helmets, but much like traffic school, the youth can attend a bicycle-safety class instead of paying the fee, Bonilla said.
Because many people consider safe bicycle riding so important, there are programs to increase helmet wearing.
Stanford offers safety classes. Jane Rothstein, Health Improvement Program coordinator of environmental behavior change, teamed up with cycling instructor John Ciccarelli to teach Safe and Confident Bicycle Commuting.
"We teach mostly employees and people who live in the surrounding community. We encourage helmet wearing. It's like putting on a seatbelt when getting in a car. Safety, however, has more components than just wearing a helmet," Rothstein said.
Palo Alto's Bicycle Adviser Swent notes that kids need to learn about how drivers experience the road.
"I teach them to ride where drivers will see them. Communicate. Make eye contact. Use hand signals. Make sure other people know what they're going to do," Swent said.
"Helmets are the last line of defense. It's like an insurance policy."
He points out that helmets need to be properly fitted in order to be effective, however. Most cyclists wear them too far back on the head, he said. Swent posted how to wear a helmet properly on this website, http://bikeclass.swent.net/Helmets.htm.
So how to get people to wear the hair-crushing domes?
Helmet manufacturers are working to make sexier helmets that people will like.
"I've been wearing a helmet since the '90s, and they've gone from looking like you're wearing a Q-tip on your head to looking like a colorful baseball cap," Barba said.
At approximately $40, helmets are not expensive. If cost is the determining factor, Stanford University can assist students purchasing helmets, said Barba, who noted that he wears one because he's married and wants to "do the things that I wouldn't be able to do if I hurt my head."
The message has gotten through to some kids as well.
"I wear it because I don't want to die!" said one Palo Alto high school student, his unfastened helmet resting atop his head.