King County seeks repeal of the Bicycle Helmet Act

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September 21, 2021

In response to concerns about the unfair enforcement of King County’s bicycle helmet requirements, members of the county’s health committee are seriously considering withdrawing the decade-old law, with a vote expected as early as next month.

Several board members expressed their desire to get the law off the books during a meeting on Thursday, and none raised a clear objection. The focus of their argument was the disproportionate application of the law against colored people and the homeless and the question of whether the stated goal was achieved.

“The regulation is out of date,” said board member Dr. Bill Daniell.

At the same time, the members wanted to make it clear that they can support and promote voluntary helmet use and replace the law with a corresponding resolution.

The board members began their review of the law amid another review of its enforcement. Last year, a cross-sectional analysis showed that nearly half – and probably more – of tickets issued under the law were given to people struggling with homelessness. This disproportionate use of helmet quotes even occurred when bike sharing became popular in Seattle and King Counties – a rental service that doesn’t include helmets.

At the same time, Ethan Campbell of Central Seattle Greenways, an offshoot of the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways road safety group, found that black drivers were almost four times more likely than whites to be cited for not wearing a helmet.

Although the original intentions of the law were good, “just not much thought was given to how the law would be applied in practice and against whom,” Campbell said of its enactment in the early 1990s.

Campbell expressed shared concern that police were using the law as an excuse to stop people of color and the homeless. In fact, in 2019 a Seattle City Court judge dismissed a firearms charge against a man living in a homeless camp for being obtained after police stopped him for not wearing a helmet.

The recent enforcement revelations have spurred more bicycle proponents to push for its repeal.

“We believe helmets can provide some level of protection, but we don’t think that should be a matter of law enforcement,” said Paul Tolmé of the Cascade Bicycle Club. Support for repealing the Helmet Bill is new to Cascade, an influential Seattle bicycle advocacy organization that advocated passing the bill years ago. But, Tolmé said, the data on who the enforcement target is has forced a settlement among members.

“We have learned a lot over the past few decades,” said Tolmé. The group’s bumper sticker preference is now “helmets yes, helmet laws no.”

The requirement that all adults wear helmets was approved in King County in 1993. In 2003 this law was extended to Seattle. At the same time, 17 cities in King County have their own requirements that would not be affected by the Department of Health’s measures.

When the law was created, evidence suggested it met its goals of increasing helmet use. According to a study by Harborview Medical Center, deaths and serious head injuries among cyclists have decreased by up to 20%.

But the use of the law today is unclear. At Thursday’s health committee meeting, county officials suggested that the effects would wear off. In Seattle, enforcement was minimal; In 2019, the Seattle police wrote only 118 tickets despite record passenger numbers.

According to Campbell, the culture of helmet wearing has changed since the law was originally passed. “We have to remember that helmet use was essentially zero before the 1990s,” he said. While it can be difficult to get exact numbers, Campbell said cities with and without helmet laws now both have high rates of helmet use.

The abolition of the bill was one of two options being considered by the board of directors, composed of elected officials from both the county and King County’s cities. The other option would be to remove the law enforcement language, keep the law in force but prevent police officers from issuing citations.

Two county organizations working for fairer public health outcomes – the Pandemic and Racism Community Advisory Group and the Equity Response Team – rejected this move for fear of unintended consequences.

Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a member of both the board of directors and the King County Council, did not want to repeal the law and called the subject “complicated” in an interview. With no parallel public service push to remind people to wear a helmet, Kohl-Welles said she was careful to repeal the law entirely. At the same time, she said, “I am not ready to go along with things as they are now that we would choose the option of doing nothing where the disparities in enforcement remain.”

In a presentation to members of the Ministry of Health, staff suggested several ways the county could increase helmet use without law enforcement, including providing free or inexpensive helmets to people who need them, hosting community education events, and hiring a bicycle safety planner at the circle level.

The board could vote on the repeal and a resolution to support helmet use next month.


Crosscut is a service from Cascade Public Media, a non-profit, public media organization. visit crosscut.com/membership to support independent journalism.

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