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With bike share on the horizon, it’s time to rethink King County’s adult helmet law

This is illegal in King County. Photo by Ben Schumin via Wikipedia

With Portland officially passing funding for a bike sharing system, Seattle can no longer pretend bike sharing is something that only happens in other parts of the country and the world. Bike sharing is proven, effective and safe — so safe that Barcelona estimates their city’s bike share program saves 12 lives every year. And now it’s finally coming to the region.

The potential for bike sharing in transit-dependent Seattle is enormous, but one big impediment stands in the way: We have a rare, all-ages helmet law that is enforced as a primary offense. Of the hundreds of bike share systems across the world, the only major bike share systems in the world that have completely flopped are in Melbourne and Brisbane, Australia. Those systems are also the only ones in cities with all-ages mandatory helmet laws.

A bike share feasibility study conducted by the University of Washington found that, despite the great potential for a system here, our helmet laws would need a solution to avoid having a negative impact on the system’s success:

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The self-service nature of most bike-share programs limits their ability to provide helmets. Most bike-share programs in existence do not require helmets for users over the age of 18, and we did not find any program that actually requires users to wear helmets. Helmet use would be a challenge to bike-share use in Seattle and throughout King County, as people might not always be carrying a helmet with them. Unless a way around the helmet law in King County is discovered, the helmet requirement could dramatically reduce the number of bike-share riders by eliminating the spontaneity of bike-share use.

King County is very interested in starting a system, and the county received a grant to study and design a system here. That study is currently under way. Ref Lindmark with King County has been leading the effort, and he recently acknowledged the challenge of starting a system under our current helmet laws on KUOW’s the Conversation.

“There’s a lot of folks who just want to walk up to one of the kiosks and check out a bike and make that short trip,” he said on KUOW. “It definitely can suppress short-term walk-up demand.”

The effect of mandatory helmet laws on the success of bike share systems can be massive, as Jake Kennon pointed out in a recent article at Sightline:

The only (sic) failed program in the world is Melbourne’s. It’s also the only one put in place under a helmet law. As this short video documents, Dublin has launched a program of similar scope (450 bikes versus Melbourne’s 600), but its fleet clocks 5,000 trips per day while Melbourne’s barely manages 70. It’s already racked up a million trips without a single fatality and a stunning 40 percent of users are first-time cyclists!

That’s right, not a single fatality. Bike share systems across the world are showing that the public bikes are significantly safer than riding your personally-owned bicycle, according to StreetsBlog. This could be because the bikes are upright, well-maintained and have functioning lights. Or it could be because they are slower with lower gears meant for cruising, not racing. Or it could be because the high density areas where they are most likely to be ridden are more used to bicycle use or have better facilities and slower traffic.

Whatever the reason (or, likely, combination of reasons), after 4.5 million trips on London’s bike share system, there has not been a single fatality. In the first 1.6 million trips on London’s public bikes, only ten people were injured, none of them seriously.

And the incredible safety record with these systems is not just over seas. The system in DC, hardly a bike-friendly mecca, saw similar safety numbers. From Streetsblog:

So while only seven bike-sharing riders were injured in 330,000 trips, on average, 13 people riding personal bikes are injured over the same number of trips. And bike-sharing riders suffered no serious injuries, while riders using their own bikes suffered injuries that were sometimes serious or even fatal.

Same with Minneapolis:

Similarly, Minneapolis’s NiceRide system reported “no significant accidents or major injuries” in its first year of operation. In that time, Minnesotans took 37,000 NiceRide trips.

Bike sharing is among the safest ways for people to get around, yet a law intended to increase safety could make it impossible to implement a successful system in Seattle and King County. A law intended to save lives might prevent our city from saving lives in a different way.

Something needs to change.

The helmet law debate is one of the most divisive among people who ride bicycles. It’s an argument that has played itself out thousands of times on the streets and on Internet forums and comment streams. The county has not signaled any intent to repeal the law, and any such attempt would certainly be painful and difficult.

However, there are options that may not require the painful process of completely reversing the law in the case that the county remains steadfastly opposed to repeal. Kennon presents two ideas:

  • Make riding helmetless a secondary offense. Adjusting the law so cyclists cannot be cited unless they do something else illegal would allow people to take safety decisions into their own hands. Helmets are often compared to seatbelts, so why not give them the same legal status?
  • Make an exemption for bike-share users. Pedicabs (three-wheeled rickshaws for hire) are excluded from helmet laws, both for drivers and passengers, and their safety records are stellar. Vancouver’s bike share feasibility study (.pdf, see page 56) found that in the twelve years since the pedicab helmet exemption took effect there has not been one reported head injury. There are also exemptions for people with religious objections (it’s hard to put a helmet over a turban), children on tricycles, and even people with big heads. Why not public bikes?

First off, I am pretty sure wearing a seatbelt is actually a primary offense in Washington State, not a secondary offense as Kennon notes (correct me if I’m wrong). However, I am intrigued by his suggestion that helmet laws would more comfortably fit into the secondary offense category, meaning law enforcement could only tack it onto a ticket for a separate traffic offense. After all, the adult unhelmeted users that attract the most attention and scorn are the minority of people illegally blowing through stop lights and weaving dangerously through traffic, and the helmet law would still target them. The laws mandating helmet use among children would also remain unchanged. Regardless of how you feel about helmet laws in general, this seems like a good compromise.

I also see lot of promise in the idea of simply exempting public bikes from the law. Given the incredible safety record of bike share systems across the globe, it would be more than reasonable to provide an exemption so that a system here would be allowed to thrive. After all, a law intending to increase safety should be rethought if it gets in the way of other road safety initiatives.

Both Mexico City and Israel have adjusted their mandatory all-ages helmet laws in the past year in advance of bike share systems. And, indeed, Mexico City’s public bikes system has had an extraordinary safety record, according to StreetsBlog:

In Mexico City, for example, only three ECOBICI riders have required a trip to the hospital after a traffic crash in the 1.6 million trips taken so far. That’s an impressive safety record in a city known for its dangerous traffic.

With miles and miles of new bicycle facilities, King County is a much safer place to cycle today than it was in 2003, when Seattle first fell under the county’s existing all-ages helmet law. These investments in safe streets and trails have lead to rapid growth in the number of people who feel comfortable bicycling for everyday transportation.

Considering the promise of bike share safety, the 2003 Bicycle Helmet Regulation now appear to go against it’s stated primary purpose, which is “to provide for and to promote the health and welfare of the general public.”

The compromises proposed above will not likely go far enough for the most adamant of anti-helmet crusaders, and the most staunch helmet boosters may refuse to budge an inch on the law currently in place.

But I believe the vast majority of people fall into the middle of this debate, more interested in pursuing the broader goal of public health than winning an decades-old argument about pieces of Styrofoam. We want our laws to adapt to changing realities as is necessary for King County to remain an innovative and increasingly safe place to live.

When the county looks to implement a bike share system, which could launch as early as 2012 (more on that soon), a reasonable modification to the helmet laws needs to be part of the package for approval. If the county is uninterested in addressing the issue, the City of Seattle could feasibly lower the priority of helmet enforcement as a primary offense within the Seattle limits.

For more on the awesome power of bike share programs, sit back and enjoy these videos:

The Phenomenal Success of Capital Bikeshare from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

Nice Ride MN: Minnesota’s Bike Share Expands from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

The Biggest, Baddest Bike-Share in the World: Hangzhou China from Streetfilms on Vimeo.

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57 responses to “With bike share on the horizon, it’s time to rethink King County’s adult helmet law”

  1. Nick Spang

    Good thoughts and nice write-up. I would hope that any regulation for bike helmets would be based on data, and if there are no data to suggest that helmets are important for avoiding injury that we could find a way to update the law so we could bring a viable bikeshare program here.

  2. I too would like to see the helmet safety data.

  3. I completely agree about the helmet law, but I have my doubts about bike sharing here. I’m normally highly skeptical of people who say “these things that worked elsewhere couldn’t possibly work in Seattle”, but in this instance I do think we’re a special case. Every successful bike share scheme in a city whose geography I know is in a place very much unlike here. Take London, where I’ve used the bike share extensively and love it: the whole central area of the city is a big floodplain, with no steep climbs whatsoever, and the vast majority of attractions are in that central area. There are also relatively few fast roads in the central city, and they’re all easily avoided with a little routefinding skill. Here our downtown is forbiddingly steep and the avenues often either quite fast or chock full of bendy busses that cut off cyclists in a terrifying manner, and while we have quite a few neighbourhoods that are internally reasonably flat, there aren’t many areas bigger than a healthy person’s 20-minute walk without a substantial climb in them.

    I bike around all the time, but I’m an experienced cyclist on a bike with more than 3 gears, that weighs perhaps half what the typical bikeshare bike weighs. I really think those hills are going to put off novices, and very much limit what can be done with bikes as heavy as they probably have to be to be durable and low-maintenance enough for a bikeshare to work out financially.

    1. Melinda

      I think that a bikeshare for people to tool around Lake Union or the UW campus or along the Burke-Gilman would be marvelous, though. Those aren’t neighborhoods that you hang around in, but the whole UW-Fremont-Ballard string along the ship canal is flat as a pancake and full of touristy stuff to do.

      If I were part of a family coming to see the UW, for example, because a kid was thinking of going to college there, it’d be awesome to get bikeshare bikes to see the campus, go over to the Ballard Locks, visit the center of the universe, tool on up to Ravenna Park…

      1. Melinda

        Also, U Villlage, Magnuson Park, Golden Gardens…

        What about having bike share bikes at the cruise ship terminal underneath Magnolia? People could take them out and go Myrtle Edwards Park, to the locks, or to the touristy crap along Alaskan Way, and up to Pioneer Square.

      2. Well, the Burke is pretty flat. Try to actually go some place from the Burke and you run into some pretty steep hills.

        But the bigger issue is that I just don’t think the bikeshare market is all that big along the ship canal and Lake Union. The whole appeal of a bikeshare is that it lets you ride a bike starting somewhere other than your home. Is there demand for people riding along the Burke that don’t live near the Burke? Maybe a little, but not nearly the demand there is downtown.

  4. I think a bike share would be wonderful in Seattle. There are plenty of places to ride in the city without climbing up a steep hill, like folks mentioned above. Also, I imagine docking stations to be at top and bottom of hills. You could even put in an incentive to return a bike to an uphill station, like a slight discount or something. Plus, when people start riding in flat areas, like on the Burke Gilman, they soon find they have more strength than they thought to tackle hills.

    I often have friends who visit from other cities and want to show them around by bicycle and it is always a challenge to find a bike they can ride. But it is also important that the bike share spots not only be in touristy areas, I want to see folks in the city have ample opportunities to use the bike share to run errands.

  5. biliruben

    I can see massive demand within neighborhoods.

    Pop out of the eventual LINK station on Capital Hill, and ride for miles North South along relatively a relatively flat corridor, chalk full of retail, restaurants and bars.

    Same with the waterfront all the way into Magnolia and beyond, or to Alki if you choose south.

    Top of Queen Anne.

    The Zoo to 100th is pretty flat along the Greenwood corridor, and full of retail and restaurants.

    Maple Leaf, U-district, Fremont, Ballard, the beaches. There is a huge amount of opportunity to people to toodle for a few miles in relatively flat areas.

    Really, you can ride from Redmond to Alki without climbing a hill, though these sorts of cruisers will probably be more suited for a mile or three.

  6. paul sudano

    I was a high level cyclist. On three occasions I went down and struck my head with such force, that my helmets needed to be trashed and of course replaced. I was an excellent bike handler. But that excellence could not prevent the nearly instantaneous impacts of head to asphalt that I experienced. Had I been wearing only a cyclers cap, I wonder at the severity of injury I might have sustained. Ride a bike and you are inevitably going to go down without forewarning. Helmets should be required by all who ride a bicycle. The risk of head trauma is not worth taking.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Thanks for your thoughts, Paul. You say you were a “high level” cyclist, and I’m curious if that means you were a racer. Were you training or racing during your falls? I would suggest that there is a difference between cruising at a comfortable rate and racing. I wouldn’t wear a life jacket if I were simply swimming in a lake, but I would wear one if I were water skiing (not a perfect analogy, but you get the point).

      The bike share bikes would not be built for very much speed. And data from other cities with these systems (cited above) suggests that people are not getting head injuries while riding them.

      1. Nick

        Tom, it doesn’t matter training or racing. You’re trying to justify your position of not needing a helmet. Figure the majority of folks that might eventually use a bike share don’t have stellar bike handling skills. An impact to the head, regardless, can still cause damage. I’ve crashed on a bike at slow speed, 5mph, and ended up with a concussion because of no helmet. In the litigous society it seems the few extra bucks for a helmet would actually make this idea viable.

  7. Uncle Mike

    The data supporting helmets for safety states that there are very few accidents involving serious head trauma. But when they happen, they are catastrophic for the victim. Paraplegia, memory loss, concussion, brain injury, closed head injury; these are all catastrophic injuries (or can be). More important, the public foots much of the bill in terms of uninsured health care costs. Frequency of this kind of injury in WA state: about three a year.
    All the studies were done before the recent growth of cycling, using proper modern adult bicycles. The only bicycles available in the US at the time the studies were done were racing or touring style bikes, with drop down handlebars. They should have a sign warning of their inherent dangerousness.
    Paul’s testimony is worth considering: he considers himself a good ‘bike handler’, yet all the evidence indicates he obviously is not. There major accidents is too many. This is often what you hear: testimony from people who keep smacking the pavement, but don’t integrate the message the universe is trying to send them.
    If you ride without a helmet, you should not be riding fast. You should not be riding a ‘racing’ style bicycle, because that style is inherently unsafe, especially if you are not wearing a helmet. Your brain is right out there; its obvious. You ride a bicycle because it is fun, healthy, and inexpensive. If you want to ride fast, just get a car.

    1. Brian

      I’ve watched a lot of people on bike share bikes in DC, Denver, and Barcelona, and I’ve watched a lot of video of regular people riding in Copenhagen and Amsterdam. Almost none of these people are wearing helmets, and it is very hard for me to imagine them hitting the ground with force enough to hit their heads, let alone break a helmet. There is a world of difference between speed/competition oriented cycling (most of King County cyclists) and utilitarian cycling.

      I tend to think the helmet law in this county is an overreach based on limited data (I’ve reviewed the data – they are skimpy at best). The increased health care costs of covering underinsured cyclists who do happen to hit their heads is probably less than a drop in the bucket, honestly, and the helmet law is quite likely to reduce our overall cycling rate. My preference would be to ditch the helmet law altogether. But if that’s impossible, perhaps a compromise could be reached such that cyclists traveling more than say 15 mph would be required to wear a helmet. It is hard to imagine utilitarian bike share bikes going any faster than that.

      1. Tom Fucoloro

        Aha! That’s another interesting compromise law. A speed-based helmet law. 15 might not be a terrible number to start from. It’s probably really hard to determine, but I wonder if there is data on the risk of head injury by speed of cycling at time of crash (if anyone finds any, be sure to post here).

        What I love about this whole conversation is that we don’t need to be locked down to “yes” or “no” on helmets. There are compromises to explore.

      2. Eric

        On flat ground, yes. But on steep descents, one can easily go 30 mph+ on gravity alone, without pedaling, utilitarian bike or no.

        If we rescind the helmet law, it seems to be a matter of time before some nut goes down a hill too fast, hits something, gets injured, then sues the city for millions of dollars.

        From the city’s perspective, the potential liability is particularly scary.

    2. eric.br


      i appreciate your concern, but a common misconception is the public foots the bill for non-helmeted bicyclists. as Tom F pointed out in an earlier post:

      “I do not agree with this “Your head injury costs tax payers
      money” argument. The health benefits of riding a bike offset all
      those other expensive health costs (obesity, diabetes, heart
      disease, etc). So I don’t see a bike rider without a helmet as any
      more of a tax risk than a couch potato. And what about people into
      hang gliding that don’t have health insurance? Are they a public
      tax menace? It’s sort of a silly road to go down.”

      and i agree. but if we look at it from a public health perspective, mandating helmets to pedestrians would statistically make a much larger impact and lessen the number of blunt force head traumas. by enacting laws that force cyclists to wear helmets, we basically tell the public “cycling is dangerous!” (which statistically it isn’t) and inadvertently keeps normal folks from getting out on the streets (which by the way, HAS empirically shown to make the roads safer and reduce injuries to cyclists.)

      follow the rules, ride safely and conscientiously, but please don’t add to the public’s fear of cycling…

    3. doug in seattle

      “The only bicycles available in the US at the time the studies were done were racing or touring style bikes, with drop down handlebars. They should have a sign warning of their inherent dangerousness.”

      Drop handlebars on racing and touring bikes are not intrinsically unsafe. I have ridden many thousands of miles on various bicycles with drop bars and have had only one serious crash. I didn’t crash because drops are “unsafe.” I crashed because I made a stupid decision.

      Bicycles are no more or less inherently unsafe than driving a car, which you seem to consider intrinsically safe. Evidence suggests that personal automobiles are anything but.

  8. Dave Meyer

    Folks, what would otherwise be a well written and engaging argument looses it’s punch when you fail to complete the research. Seat belts are not a secondary offense, nor has it been for over ten years. If this were a high school report it would get a c-.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Do you mean the Sightline piece or our post. I pointed out the seatbelt mistake in the story.

  9. Bubba Mike

    I suppose if you have nothing to protect then there is no need to wear a helmet. It doesn’t take much of a fall to result in a cracked noggin, you don’t have to be going fast. Hit a railroad track at the wrong angle, hit a storm drain or some wet leaves and you can go down and break bones and hit your head with enough force to maim or kill you. Instead of getting rid of the law we need to enforce it strictly.

  10. Scott Watkins

    Could it be that the helmet law exists in Seattle because there is a higher percentage of people here who are concerned about bike safety? If that is true, then even were the helmet law repealed, there would still be the same percentage of people not willing to saddle up without a helmet, thus the program’s growth would still be hindered.

    Also, the fact that there is a helmet law doesn’t seem to phase the countless people I see riding around without helmets. I think we often tend to see ourselves as invincible. Even accidents at low speeds can cause brain injury. Bike accidents may be rare, but the costs are high.

    1. Jeremy

      Then why no car helmet law? Car drivers must see themselves as invincible. Even car collisions at low speeds can cause brain injury. Car collisions may be rare, but the costs are high. Therefore, helmets must be made mandatory for all occupants of cars.

      1. Jake Jackson

        I do realize that you’re a typical cyclista who despises cars and therefore will spout every bit of nonsense that comes to your mind, such as it is. But in case I’m in error and you have a rational cell among the three or four in your brain, you might want to consider the long list of safety devices in automobiles and roadways that have radically reduced fatality rates.

        Seat belts (and mandatory usage), airbags, energy-absorbing steering columns, steel reinforced passenger doors, safety cage designs, safety glass …

  11. Recently the subject came up in Dallas in the context of the Mexico City helmet law repeal. The seminar organizer said they’d never consider doing that in Dallas. I suspect the Seattle Council is similarly dogmatic and determined to “protect” cyclists regardless of the absence of evidence of a compelling need. I’m surprised they haven’t banned consumption of foods containing stuff they don’t like yet. Regardless, as in Dallas, and Austin before it, the law will mostly be enforced against “bad elements” such as minority kids.

  12. Lisa

    I agree with the poster who noted that the biggest obstacle to bikeshare success in Seattle is hills, not helmets. I bike commute regularly, and using my bike to get around downtown for meetings is fantastic. We’ve toyed with the idea of getting an office bike for just this purpose. But for most folks (including me, a regular rider), Seattle’s downtown topography can be daunting. My office mates have vetoed the bike idea for just this reason. A little knowledge of flatter routes and even the occasional elevator goes a long way, but the casual user may have a harder time finding those routes.

    Seattle’s bike culture is still very macho. Bikesharing should be for normal folks, not only buff guys in spandex. If we want biking to take off with all sorts of people in this city, it’s got to feel relatively easy and comfortable. Has any city implemented bikesharing with motor-assisted electric bikes? That might be a way to bridge the gap.

  13. TN

    Requiring helmet use sends a message that the activity is a sport, that it requires “gear”, and that it is dangerous. Requiring helmet use discourages average people who have places to go and look presentable from riding a bike there – vanity and hair are powerful motivators. Successful promotion of cycling for transport purposes requires messaging that the activity is safe and accessible to all. Otherwise, transport cycling will not flourish. According to data and articles on the http://copenhagenize.com bicycle advocacy site, statistics show that you are more likely to injure your noggin as a pedestrian or in a car than on a bike, yet pedestrians and drivers of cars are not required to use helmets.

    If Seattle and King County are serious about bike share and transport cycling, safety must be approached by separating bikes from cars on the roads so that subjective safety (the feeling of safety) is felt to be high by riders. By separating bikes from cars, and using proper Dutch-style cycle infrastructure design to eliminate conflict between bike and car, you create a safe environment in which cycling thrives. And, the more people out riding their bikes, the safer the environment actually is for those people. In that sort of environment, helmets are not needed – as attested by the millions of Dutch people riding daily across all age groups in the safest place in the world for cycling.

  14. Bill

    Paul Sudano, you’re a fatalist. Three crashes haven’t taught you to slow down? High level fool is a better descriptor. Solution? Just cool your jets before you do die in a cycling accident. I am sixty-six years old, have been a regular cyclist since age 23 (forth-three years) and only had to have one serious crash in a lifetime of cycling. That was more than thirty years ago. It taught me a whole lot lessons about loose road grit, cornering, momentum, inertia, excessive speed, traction where the rubber meets the road, gravity and instantaneous loss of control. If you want the thrill of speed, buy a top fuel eliminator dragster. That should make you smokin’ hot. Oh, and did I mention that you’re not only a menace to yourself, but to every other cyclist you encounter on the bicycle paths and lanes. For my safety and yours, I suggest you ditch the helmet because you already know the effects that not having one may do for you. Personally, I’d feel a lot more safe seeing you without one. As for me, I generally wear one. The exception is on days when the temperature creeps over the 65 degree mark. I’m more into comfort and cautious bike handling than I am into time trials on public rights-of-way.

    So, yeah, ditch the primary offense mandatory helmet law. It’s value is highly questionable, except for high level fools.

  15. Todd

    The helmet law only hurts the non-biker or recreationalist one who is seeking to hop a bike around town. The rest of us typically already are accustomed to riding with a helmet — and already own our bikes. So if the goal here is to expand the scope of riders then it could be an issue for the newbie but in my opinion they’re the ones who really need it. I will never ride anywhere without my helmet. In the last year alone, my helmet has made contact with the pavement or a car 3 times — and I’m an experienced rider.

  16. Doug

    The author should contact the trauma doctors at Harborview for their opinions on repealing the helmet law. I’m fairly certain what their take would be, and I’m fairly certain it disagrees with the opinion offered by the author of this article.

    Protecting lives and brains is a far more important societal goal than getting more people on bicycles.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      I’m curious if you read the whole post, Doug, most importantly the part where I point out the remarkably low rate of injuries on bike share systems around our nation and the world, such as:

      “after 4.5 million trips on London’s bike share system, there has not been a single fatality. In the first 1.6 million trips on London’s public bikes, only ten people were injured, none of them seriously.”

      While I understand your point that head injuries are serious, I think you skipped the focus of the post in your dismissal of it. If the helmet law itself makes it so we can’t create an extremely safe bike share system that could save lives (see Barcelona link above), then it does nothing to help the situation in Harborview’s trauma center.

    2. As one who spent almost a month total in Harborview, and had to deal with doctors with attitudes and then some, I can say that yes they would agree with you, but they wouldn’t stop there. Why not ban cars and anything that goes over 15mph? That would certainly solve a lot of medical catastrophes and help the environment.

      I broke my leg the second time at 4MPH, yes 4 mph. Accidents, mishaps and such can happen at any speed, its about time someone like Tom stepped up and pointed out that this law needs to be changed.

      BTW, the only time I was hassled over not wearing my helmet was in Lake Forest Park. The cop got onto his megaphone and started yelling at me, it was quite comical since I had a friend with me and he knew about my bike tix.

  17. Doug Bostrom

    (different Doug here)

    A harshly facile response to this interesting dilemma is to say sure, ease helmet laws for certain cycling modes, but require those folks who don’t want to wear a helmet to file a disclaimer releasing the state (us) from pouring money into a vegetable for decades should the worst happen. After all, if a person ends up brain dead or disabled because they chose not to wear a helmet that’s not really a tragic accident, any more than plunging off a rock face is for a free climber. This disclaimer could be included in the process of enrolling in a bike share program.

    On the other hand, how would that actually work? Would we really dump an injured person at the curb? Nope.

    So maybe a more useful way of thinking of this is to ask how many basket cases the state would end up responsible for? We’re probably looking at an almost invisible marginal cost.

    Also, how would revisions to the law avoid simply creating a blanket exemption? Would police officers really bother to go through the hassle of checking a bike’s provenance?

    This affair really goes to the heart of the “nanny state” canard. For any one of us this is not such a huge choice, but if you’re the poor fellow sitting at a desk and confronting aggregate numbers it’s not hard to see why the conclusion would be “wow, we ought to -do- something about this, make people behave more safely.”

    For my part my hair is less important to me than my brain, more so all the time as my hair continues to vanish, so no decision to be made…

    1. Such costs are NOT negligible if you count the motoring carnage and getting a waiver from motor vehicle operators and passengers might really reduce such costs to the rest of us that travel a bit slower. Come to think of it, maybe motorists ought to be wearing helmets for their own safety.

  18. Gary

    I’ve fallen twice in the last 6 months. Once was due to an equipment failure, chain broke and wrapped my rear wheel locking it up and taking me down. The second time I hit a bit of mud going a mere 5 mph and the bike just slid out from under me. No amount of speed reduction would have saved me in either case. However my helmet did prevent any serious head injuries both times.

    My wife works at Harborview and in fact in the head repair section. No way would she recommend riding without a helmet. Yes driving a car is dangerous, yes walking is dangerous, but it’s stupid to stop doing the one thing that saves your noggin from a whack when you do other things that are also dangerous. I figure I’m just cutting back on my odds of a head injury. Besides I now drive my car far less than I ride my bike. So it’s my primary defense.

    As for being a law, if you fall and become a human vegetable the state will take care of you. Unless we can pull the plug on those organ donors who didn’t wear a helmet instead of repairing them to carrot state, we have a vested interest in your safety. Yeah it’s a nanny state plan but so are seatbelts, air bags, etc.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Thanks, Gary. To be clear, I’m not advocating that people not wear helmets. I wear one. All bike share programs in the country advocate for helmet use.

      However, bike share is extremely safe (as noted above), and it would be a shame if our city would not be able to start such a system merely because of a helmet law. Encourage people to bring their own, offer helmets in vending machines or in some other distribution system, whatever. But don’t prevent the creation of a system with a proven safety record due solely to a dogmatic adherence to a different safety method. We need to be flexible enough to change our laws and safety methods as new evidence presents itself.

    2. Tom Fucoloro

      And I don’t think your helmet is your primary defense. Safe riding and safe streets are far more important. A helmet is a last defense after everything else has failed. We can improve our earlier lines of defense, and bike share is one such tool.

      1. Gary

        I totally agree. But I bet if you look at those other cities where it failed, that it would be the lack of going big. You have to have a lot of bikes, and racks to make this thing work.

        Also the prime users in places like Washington DC aren’t tourists, it’s part of the transit system. You ride the metro, and pick up a bike and ride to work. Those people can easily haul a helmet around. I think if you focus only on tourists it will fail. Besides hotels could have free rental helmets for the tourists and hand them out to those interested in using the system.

        The best thing about a bike share system is not the tourist transit. We want them to spend big bucks on taxis etc to make money off them. It’s that it solves the last mile problem. Meaning buses don’t have to stop every block, the bike racks are at the bus stops and in between so you can ride back a block or two to your office. It speeds up the bus ride by reducing dwell time. And makes it easier to not have to bring a bike to a bus to ride that last mile.

      2. Gary

        My understanding is that the City of Seattle’s Helmet law is a “health law” not a traffic law. So it should be easy to de-proritize and I thought the fine was $25, or show up in court with a helmet and proof of payment. Not exactly anything to get too overly worked up about.

  19. Breadbaker

    I used Bikeshare in Toronto recently, and I think the problem in Seattle may be infrastructure, as much as either hills or helmets. Here’s how it works in a place like Toronto: you pay $5.00 and get a free half hour plus a rate for longer if you want to bike longer. In half an hour, from where I was staying, you could bike to the Royal Ontario Museum, leave the bike there, and see the museum. Then, when you finished, you would have a number of fast, convenient choices to get back to where you started: a subway, a trolley, a bus, or biking back (at the same rate as before, with the $5.00 setup charge covering your 24 hours). In Barcelona, where I would have used it if I could have figured it out in Catalan, you get the same kind of quick transportation choices. In Seattle, where it might be raining when you left the museum, you have nothing but a bus, and our buses are simply too infrequent except at rush hour to qualify as an actual transportation system as opposed to an alternative to commuting.

    1. Gary

      You know electric assist bikes might more sense here in Seattle. The stations could also function as rechargers as well. Then climbing a hill might be slow using electric only power but it could be done without pedaling.

  20. Gary


    Naw, you don’t need to wear a helmet. This kid survived being hit by a car. Of course had she been wearing one it would have been a minor concussion vs a trip to Harborview.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      Few (if any) people are discussing a repeal of the helmet law for children. Those are very popular and would not necessarily interfere with a bike share program, as bike share would likely be 18+.

      1. Gary

        Actually we have the most invested in adults 18+ to 55. They are now capable of being full tax payers and can repay the investment in education etc that we have in them. Children while not capable of making the rational decision we have far less money in.

        So on a financial basis adults should be required to wear them until they near retirement.

  21. This is a great post!
    The fact is bike sharing is healthy.
    Another fact is that some people want to wear a helmet.
    There is a solution, bike share + helmet solution.
    So far the best solution I have seen is the non-profit company bikeshare bc – http://www.bikeshare.ca
    Cheers to bike share!

  22. Josh

    There are two different questions being conflated here:

    1. Are bicycle helmets good for public health?
    2. Are mandatory helmet laws good for public health?

    There’s been good research on both questions.

    #1 — yes, helmets reduce the severity of many bicycle injuries, no doubt about it. Cycling with a helmet is safer than cycling without one.

    #2 is trickier. Serious bicycle accidents are rare. Diseases of a sedentary lifestyle are quite common. Cycling without a helmet is still safer than not cycling at all. If a mandatory helmet law reduces the frequency of cycling even slightly, the increase in heart disease, obesity, diabetes, etc. can easily exceed the benefit from increased helmet use. Peer-reviewed public health research shows bicycle commuters have a 40% lower risk of premature death than car or transit commuters. The health benefits greatly exceed the accident risks, even without a helmet.

    In short: Bicycle helmets are good. But bicycle helmet laws for adults increase public health costs and reduce overall lifespans.

    By all means, encourage voluntary helmet use by adults. Just avoid coercive measures that discourage people from cycling when they don’t have a helmet handy.

  23. Pete

    I think there’s a lot of oversimplication going on here. For example, some people could ride rarely, which doesn’t improve their health much, and they could still injure themselves. That’s an extreme case, but you can’t just say this program will magically bring health care costs way down, or that repealing the helmet will suddenly lead to way more deaths.

    However, I’d agree that the hills are a big issue. I fell off a scooter going downhill without a helmet when I was a kid (stupid, I know) and got a concussion. You can go really fast downhill and that’s a huge portion of cycling around here. Certain routes are flat, but they are the minority. Also, I could be wrong, but I would assume that people using this program would be less experienced cyclists, since more experienced ones would be more likely to own their own bike. I don’t know if there’s a good compromise, except maybe to require a license to ride without a helmet.

  24. Taz

    Bike helmet law = revenue. rewrite helmet law to allow cyclists to ride helmet free while enforce helmet law against bike messenger. I call for more enforcement of bike messenger. Bike messenger sets example for all cyclists in city. Chicago has good laws to protect public against bike messenger. It iz time for Seattle bicycle messenger crack down.

  25. […] and typically plan such trips — I often neglect to when riding bike share. Tom Fucoloro from Seattle Bike Blog notes bike share’s exemplary safety record, and (as Tom B. also did) Mexico City’s […]

  26. […] and Protective Pad Value Pack (Toddler) Best Price.Helmet debate misses the point of safe designWith bike share on the horizon, it’s time to rethink King County’s adult helmet lawDirt Bike HelmetsBell Moto 9 Dirt Bike HelmetBell Toddler Sprout Bike Helmet (Infant Love […]

  27. Nika

    Great post! I think the hill problem here may be overstated. Presumably the bike share stations would be placed in fairly safe spots, and how much of ones actual commute includes the downtown hills? Mostly, people would be going north-south in the hilliest areas. Also, there’s the rest of king county to think of. This could be such a great program!!

  28. […] public bike sharing systems. (King County, WA also has a mandatory helmet law for adults, which could put a damper on the success of the bike sharing system that some are working to design and […]

  29. […] from using bike-share, and helmet laws have been a hurdle in getting systems off the ground in Seattle and Vancouver, […]

  30. […] from using bike-share, and helmet laws have been a hurdle in getting systems off the ground in Seattle and Vancouver, […]

  31. […] is also indisputable that bike share is extremely safe, perhaps the safest way to get around in an urban environment. Systems in cities from London to […]

  32. Groundhog

    There are a few motorcycle traffic officers who enjoy giving helmet tickets more than anything else. And it’s not like your going to pay the $103 ticket. Sure you can’t renew your licences and you get sent to collections. There are some people who ride downtown on a regular basis who have more than 30 no helmet tickets..

    And really though it’s stupid not to have one on. I see these guys delivering stuff who have their helmet attached to the front of their bike, but it’s not going to protect you there. Maybe they just want to ride with the wind in their hair.

  33. […] because of the considerable hurdle of King County’s helmet law, which could further lower ridership, HelmetHub has been selected as the vendor for shared rental helmets; the same company debuted the […]

  34. […] because of the considerable hurdle of King County’s helmet law, which could further lower ridership, HelmetHub has been selected as the vendor for shared rental helmets; the same company debuted the […]

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