There are a handful of topics that online forums seem completely incapable of discussing rationally. Gun control, white male privilege and George Lucas are examples. In the biking world, the most irrational topic of conversation is probably helmets—specifically, all-ages mandatory helmet laws.
So when the City of Milton (east of Tacoma, south of Federal Way) decided to repeal a law mandating helmets for people skateboarding and biking “in public space” due to concerns about legal liability, the decision was met with the kinds of data-free knee-jerk reactions typical to such conversations.
“One remedy would be for the helmet-haters to renounce all claims to publicly funded care in the event of preventable brain injuries,” writes the Editorial Board of the Tacoma News Tribune. Of course! Injured people who, in retrospect, might have been able to lessen the severity of their injuries shouldn’t get any public funds for their health care! In fact, if everyone just took all possible precautions at all times, then nobody would ever get hurt doing anything! Why didn’t we think of this before?
On the flip side, you’ll have people arguing that biking will NEVER be mainstream in a city that has a mandatory bike helmet law because people are afraid of looking like a doofus or messing up their hair.
The reality of the debate is far more boring than either unmovable extreme would have you believe.
Portland and Seattle have the two highest bike commuting rates in the nation. Portland does not have an all-ages helmet law. Seattle has one. Portland has higher rates of cycling and (likely) a lower bike injury rate than Seattle (bike injury rate data can be a bit murky). But that probably has more to do with their more advanced bike infrastructure and flatter terrain than it has to do with their lack of a helmet law.
All-ages helmet laws are very rare in the US. Yet Seattle still has high and ever-growing numbers of people cycling compared to the hundreds of helmet-law-free cities in the nation. And, like Portland and cities around the globe have experienced, as the number of people cycling in Seattle grows, the injury rate drops. Seattle is achieving this growth by making streets safer, building more bicycle facilities and providing people with the encouragement to give it a try. This growth has little or nothing to do with our helmet law.
Therefore, it is far more effective from a public safety perspective to prevent collisions from ever happening by making streets safer and encouraging more people to cycle than to focus on preventing head injuries when collisions occur. At the same time, biking remains cool and popular in Seattle, even with our helmet law.
The Bike Share Conundrum
However, there is a looming issue that may require King County to rethink the specifics of our helmet law: Bike share. Cities around the country and the world are finding that bike share systems are shockingly safe, and we know more cycling reduces heart disease, diabetes and other health scourges related to inactivity and obesity. Any public health law that stops us from improving public health needs to be changed.
Here’s a lengthy excerpt from a story we wrote last year on the issue (note, all stats quoted are from August or earlier).
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:
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.”
Bike share is among the safest forms of urban transportation in the world:
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.
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.
Should we repeal our helmet law? The law is probably doing little or nothing to improve public safety (evidence is, at best, inconclusive). But I also don’t think the bitter fight it would start is worth it right now, and no county politician that I know of has even uttered the idea, let alone proposed it. Maybe once our roads look a little more like northern Europe and less like urban highways, the idea will gain political traction. But in the meantime, there are compromise solutions that can get parts of the law out of the path of urban progress and improved public health.
Seattle is designed for bike share. Our neighborhoods are basically islands of bikeability connected by transit. Bike share would revolutionize daily life in our city for very little money (Capital Bikeshare in DC actually pays for its own operating costs).
We are falling behind. Let’s not bicker our county into mediocrity. Instead, let’s get moving on passage of a comprehensive bike share plan that funds an initial phase and adjusts all relevant laws that could get in the way.
Note to commenters: I dare you to try to have this conversation without calling people who don’t wear helmets idiots or talking about the public cost of their brain injuries. Likewise, I dare you not to mention that study by that one doctor who rode down the road and noticed that people gave him more passing space when he didn’t have a helmet. And yes, for the record, I do wear a helmet.