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King County expected to examine helmet law as Cascade Bicycle Club supports repeal UPDATED

Correction: the data compiled by Ethan Campbell of Central Seattle Greenways has been updated after further analysis of the citations issued revealed a number of duplicates. The overall summary of the information has not significantly changed.

The King County Board of Health is likely to add a review of the county’s bicycle helmet requirement to its 2021 workplan today at its monthly meeting. This move comes after the Cascade Bicycle Club, nation’s largest statewide bicycle nonprofit, formally announced earlier this month that they are in support of repealing the law requiring bike riders in the state’s largest county to wear helmets.

Cascade’s Tamar Shuhendler told me that the bicycle club sees a responsibility to reexamine its decision on the helmet law, as one of the organizations that originally had supported a King County helmet law. When I asked her about the reaction in the cycling community to the club coming out for repeal, she acknowledged the diversity of opinion on the issue, saying Cascade “welcomes as much community input as we can possibly get”, in advance of any final action on the law.

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King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles announced she would introduce the amendment to the workplan earlier this month. “The current helmet laws in place are clearly having a disparate and negative impact on our most vulnerable neighbors and I agree that the enforcement of this law is not being applied fairly,” Kohl-Welles wrote in an email sent to her constituents. The amendment is expected to pass. UPDATE: It passed, unanimously.

The impetus for reviewing the law now is largely driven by new information around the disproportionate impact of the law. In December, Crosscut’s David Kroman published data showing that nearly half of the helmet law citations given in the City of Seattle since 2017 went to people experiencing homelessness, a vast chasm of disproportionality that illustrates how the law is being misused.

Last November, video captured Seattle Police mockingReal Change vendor who had just been involved in a traffic collision. The person was cited for not wearing a helmet, bringing home just how this law is used as a cudgel against people experiencing homelessness.

Last year, Central Seattle Greenways convened a Helmet Law Working Group with Cascade and Real Change. CSG member Ethan C. Campbell analyzed data on 1,667 helmet citations in Seattle and found that Black people made up over 17% of the tickets issued despite making up 8% of Seattle’s population. A similar disproportionality was found with other bicycle-related infractions, not just helmet law violations, pointing to more work to be done around the issue of enforcement.

Big discrepancy between citation rates between Black, Native American and white or asian/pacific islander people
Data obtained by SPD on bicycle related infractions reveals a stark disproportionality.

Tacoma repealed its helmet law last year, stating in the text of the ordinance that it would “reduce the likelihood of unnecessary enforcement actions”, citing lessons learned during the bike and scooter share rollout there.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced they would no longer promote the conclusion that bicycle helmets reduce head injury rates by 85 percent in light of meta-analyses of similar studies that found lower and inconclusive results, a fact that comes from a 1989 study that drove many municipalities around the country to pass helmet laws in the early 1990s. But advocacy organizations stayed away from advocating for full repeal of the laws on the books.

Seattle’s bike share goldrush resurfaced the issue several years ago but there was little momentum for repeal. It took an increased awareness around the issue of selective enforcement to finally push the issue back to the forefront. What’s left to be seen is whether a shift in the Public Health community around the issue has also occurred enough to affirmatively support repeal.

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28 responses to “King County expected to examine helmet law as Cascade Bicycle Club supports repeal UPDATED”

  1. In general I don’t support nanny laws, and this falls into that category. But, please, wear a helmet.

    I understand that studies are inconclusive. And that higher numbers of cyclists makes drivers more aware, thus reducing collisions.

    On the other hand, it’s hard to believe a helmet doesn’t help. Regardless of what percent chance of being hit, the big question is what happens if you do get hit. Even if that’s highly unlikely, don’t you still want to protect your head ?

    Perhaps a good analogy would be a “slightly” pregnant woman. You can reduce the odds of fertilization but, when it happens, it’s pretty clear cut.

    1. kiriska

      I don’t think anyone is suggesting that helmets aren’t helpful or encouraged, only that the law requiring it is unnecessary and often abused via uneven enforcement.

      1. Brett

        Correct: Helmets are a good thing, highly encouraged, let’s find ways to further encourage helmet use and make them available for all. Though I’ll note they are mostly useful if you fall off your bike or hit a tree and not designed to prevent injury if struck by a car/truck.

        Helmet usage = good
        Making it criminal to not wear one = bad

      2. Sean Hogan


  2. asdf2

    I once had a tree branch fall on the Burke Gilman a few feet in front of me. It missed, but had it hit, I would have been very glad to be wearing a helmet.

    That said, the average citizen likely has no idea what the helmet laws are, so having the law formally on the books likely does little to increase helmet adoption. What it does do is provide a pretext for police to selectively target poor or black people who ride without one. So, I support the repeal. We should also repeal jaywalking laws for the same reason.

  3. John Happold

    47 years on bicycles and I’ve never hit my head or helmet, no matter how many times I have fallen or crashed. With all the strife in this region, don’t give Law enforcement another reason to pull us over. Police yourself and live up to the choices you make. Nobody should have to hold someone to what they should do.

    1. my daughter did hit her helmet, when she was young. She was riding slightly downhill, hit a patch of wet leaves, and went down. She slid on the ground and her head ran into something stationary. Nothing more than a stiff neck, fortunately. Without a helmet, who knows ?

    2. Ballard Biker

      As a daily bike commuter, I have had my share of falls, including probably a half dozen that would have certainly put me in the hospital or left me with a very nasty (nastier in one case) concussion had I not been wearing a helmet.

      Nobody should have to hold someone to what they should do.

      Until society has to deal with the repercussions from people’s “I do what I want!” behavior.

  4. rdl

    I’ve broken a helmet, falling sideways at about 1 mph. Won’t get on a bike without one.
    But the issue here is that the whole argument is absurd. If the problem is a racist/classist application of a law, the problem is the racism/classism. Getting rid of the law doesn’t touch the underlying issue.

    1. Lauri

      Repealing the helmet law doesn’t touch the underlying issues of racism and classism, but it does deprive racists and classists of a weapon against their would-be victims.

      1. Sean Hogan


    2. bill

      But getting rid of the law removes a pretext for racist enforcement.

      “Helmets good” anecdote: My wife flipped her bike at about 5 mph avoiding a 3 year old that wasn’t being minded by its parent. Put a big flat spot in the front of her helmet. Parent and child immediately vanished.

  5. PH2001

    This is about responsibility. You crash without a helmet and your chances of going to the ER in a bad way increase. You will want somebody to help you then. It is reasonable to ask that you do what you can to avoid problems and the need for help. Somebody is paying for giving you that help. What is not measured (at least not provided) in these stats is what percentage of the different groups actually wears helmets. If 95% of white wear them and 50% of African Americas (pick any group) wear them, then it follows that the latter group will be cited more. What are the stats about how many in each group are caught not wearing them and the number of citations issues. The data in this article does not provide what is needed. I agree with RDL but respect and responsibility have to go hand in hand.

    1. Sean Hogan

      You are obviously not black because I see a whole bunch of people not wearing helmets especially when they have bikes that you can pay for and don’t provide helmets all over Seattle I’d been pulled over three times for not having a helmet by cops that were really aggressive and mean towards me when they pulled me over had nothing to do with the helmet I am 44 years old and never hurt myself on a bike it was embarrassing by standers watching me get had it down going through my pockets for a good 20 minutes or more every time

    2. Ott Toomet

      Requiring helmet discourages cycling, and hence exercise. This has negative effect on population health. We don’t know which effect dominates.

      1. Ballard Biker

        Requiring helmet discourages cycling, and hence exercise.

        Do you have a source that’s not that extremely flawed study from England that’s based off a hypothetical equation rather than actual research?

        I’ve never met a single person that cites the helmet law as a reason for not cycling. Cost of bike, hills, rain, bad drivers and general laziness pretty much capture all the reasons for not cycling that I’ve heard.

        This has negative effect on population health. We don’t know which effect dominates.

        Also, how do we quantify the medical costs associated with increased injuries due to lack of helmets?

    3. Urban Villager

      By you reasoning, all car occupants should be required by law to wear helmets too. It will reduce their chances of going to the ER.

      1. Ballard Biker

        By you reasoning, all car occupants should be required by law to wear helmets too. It will reduce their chances of going to the ER.

        Cars have safety features that go above and beyond what a helmet could ever do. But you knew that when you set up your strawman, right?

      2. It isn’t a stawman… most head injuries occur inside a car.

        “The author cites a 1996 study which looks at injuries per hour travelled and suggests that motor vehicle occupants are actually slightly more likely to suffer head injury than cyclists.”


      3. Ballard Biker

        The author cites a 1996 study…

        Safety features in cars have come a long way since 1996. A helmet would not add any measure of safety to cars, otherwise somebody, somewhere would have made a legitimate recommendation.

      4. Urban Villager

        See this article: https://colvilleandersen.medium.com/the-case-for-motorist-helmets-d1d6c4ae3ed2.

        Per the author: “I know what you might be thinking. Now we have seat belts and airbags which magically render car helmets obsolete. Unfortunately not. To this day, almost half of all head injuries happen in cars.”

        We don’t know from the article what the rate is per unit of travel as compared to cycling, but still – there are a lot head injuries among car occupants, so singling out bike riders for helmet use does not seem logical.

  6. Alternative idea: if you are cited without a helmet, you can buy one and use your receipt as evidence to have your citation waived.

    1. Steve Campbell

      You can already do that under the current rules.

      1. I wonder if people cited are informed about that. Regardless, I realize it doesn’t solve the racial profiling.

  7. Ballard Biker

    There are many bicycle issues that our region faces and I understand Cascade has the ability to tackle more than one issue at a time, but wow repealing a helmet law is something that should have been at the bottom of their list, if even on it at all.

    If the law is causing enforcement that significantly skews towards minorities, which the data in the summary confirms, then why not make it a secondary offense? Similar to seat belt laws before we (wisely) made them mandatory for all users, all the time.

    Helmets are a good thing and encouraging people to wear them is good thing for people and society. What we really need to be looking at is why people aren’t wearing helmets. Based on the skewed enforcement of the law, it’s most likely cost. So why don’t we implement or expand existing helmet giveaways?

    1. K

      I hesitate to compare seat belts and helmets because of the access/availability disparity. 95%+ of motor vehicles come with seatbelts, 0% (?) of bikes come with helmets. If you are driving, your seat belt is right at your side, no additional purchase required. Making such a “visible” violation, such a not wearing a helmet, a secondary offense doesn’t solve the problem of racial profiling–and a seatbelt violation is much harder to spot.

  8. Ed

    Minorities and poor people are arrested and incarcerated at a higher rate for murder, should we repeal murder laws?
    I am not sure the laws are the issue here. Something needs to be done in our society to address the inequality issues, but repealing laws put in place to protect peoples safety is not the answer..

  9. Clark in Vancouver

    I think it’s great that they’re going to review the helmet law. How it should be approached would be starting with whether there is evidence of head injury. If there is any, what other things have the same amount and ask if you would have a mandatory helmet law for those other activities. If not than why this one?
    The other things is whether the helmet law has provided any benefits. Look at places without helmet laws and if there is a lower rate of head injury.

    The belief in head injury when cycling was started as a scam to create a new market for helmets. The first “study” was intentionally fraudulent. No other study has come to the same conclusion ever. Well intentioned but misled people pushed for a helmet law in many places. The myth of head injury and of helmets preventing that has taken a life of its own in the culture and propaganda has been repeated in so many places that many people just don’t even question it.
    It’s going to be tough to turn minds around to reality about it though. Routine infant circumcision was started in the 1800s from a very dubious claim and has since been proven to have no medical benefits and to be harmful. Yet over a century later there are still people who believe it’s a good idea. Even with the law gone there will continue to be misguided believers.

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