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Support for repealing all-ages helmet law grows as Health Board begins debate

Logos of endorsing organizations.
Logos of endorsing organizations from the Helmet Law Working Group’s letter to the Board of Health.

The list of organizations backing a proposal to repeal King County’s all-ages bicycle helmet law includes many local bicycling and safe streets groups like Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and Cascade Bicycle Club as well as national organizations like People for Bikes and the League of American Bicyclists. This momentum comes as the King County Board of Health is set Thursday to begin deliberating a change to their rare regulation making it a ticketable offense for anyone to ride a bicycle without a helmet.

Real Change, Cascade and Greenways worked together over the past year to convene the Helmet Law Working Group made up of 18 people all researching best practices, the effectiveness of the law and its unintended consequences. Together, they put together a nuanced and meticulously-researched 40-page report.

The group does not recommend against wearing a helmet or deny the effectiveness of wearing a helmet when a collision occurs. Instead, it focuses entirely on the law, especially data showing that police are far more likely to stop Black people and people experiencing homelessness for bicycle helmet violations.

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“In Seattle, nearly half of all helmet citations since 2017 were issued to people experiencing homelessness,” the group wrote. “Since 2003, Black cyclists in Seattle have received citations at a rate 3.8 times higher, Indigenous cyclists 2.2 times higher, and Hispanic/Latino cyclists 1.4 times higher than white cyclists. Differences in helmet use between populations cannot explain these disparities.”

This disparity in enforcement is reason enough to repeal this law.

Helmet use is too easy for officers to use as pretense for a stop. If they want to harass someone due to their race or homelessness status, the lack of helmet gives them an easy and legal excuse to do so. Well-to-do white people can already bike helmet-free around Seattle without fear of getting stopped by police. The data above does not even represent all the times officers used the helmet law as a reason to stop someone but did not end up issuing a ticket. But every police stop is an opportunity for a person to end up trapped in the so-called justice system or become the victim of police violence. Biking without a helmet simply is not an offense worthy of a police stop.

But beyond stops, the helmet law is also used after the fact to wrongly place blame on the victim of a traffic collision. A 2020 Real Change investigation into such an incident found that once officers responding to a collision realized the person biking was experiencing homelessness, they stopped focusing on the circumstances of the collision and instead started trying to figure out if the bike was stolen (it wasn’t) before ticketing the injured man for not wearing a helmet. Helmet use has no place in determining fault in a traffic collision, yet because it is illegal it can be used as evidence that the person biking is a law-breaker. This is another unintended negative of the law that the Board needs to consider.

The Helmet Law Working Group also questions the extent that the law is the primary motivation for people choosing to wear a helmet. Perhaps in 1993, when this law was first enacted, it was a heavy-handed way to force widespread use of helmets. But our culture has changed, and people are very aware of what helmets can do to keep them safe. For example, the Group found that helmet use is about 80% in Portland, Oregon, which has no helmet law. The rate is also about 80% in Vancouver, B.C., which like Seattle does have an all-ages helmet law. The rate is about 90% in Seattle. There’s no reason at this point to think repealing the helmet law would result in plummeting rates of helmet use. It’s reasonable to think there would be some reduction, but most people who wear helmets are probably choosing to do so for reasons other than the threat of a ticket.

People are sometimes too confident in the protective abilities of helmets, focusing disproportionately on helmet use as a bicycle safety measure rather than focusing on preventing collisions from happening in the first place. Many very important parts of the body are not protected by helmets, and helmets offer a very inadequate level of head protection in high-speed collisions with cars and trucks. The safest places for cycling in the world have very low helmet use because bike routes are largely comfortable and protected from vehicle traffic. The focus on helmets shifts the onus for safety on the vulnerable road users and victims of traffic violence, ignoring the core causes of traffic injuries and deaths. Driving negligence and speeding as well as dangerous roadway designs are well-known causes of collisions. Helmets do nothing at all to prevent traffic collisions. It’s much easier for society to just say, “Well, it’s their fault for not wearing a helmet,” than it is to redesign infrastructure and adjust car-centric transportation budgets.

It’s also worth noting that even in most places where helmet use for everyday travel is very low, people do typically wear helmets when racing, training or riding in pace lines. But not all biking is sports riding, and people should have the discretion to make their own decisions about when to wear a helmet. One obvious example is hopping on a bike share bike. People are very unlikely to have a helmet with them when they see an available bike and decide to ride, but bike share has proven to be very safe even with low helmet use. The bikes position riders sitting upright, and it is difficult to go very fast (the e-bikes are required to stop giving power assist at 15 mph).

Bike share was not an option when this law was first enacted, and there are many public health benefits associated with the increase in cycling that bike share has enabled in King County. Bike trips spiked across the Fremont Bridge when private bike share services launched, and they continued to climb even after many companies left. Bike share clearly jump-started biking habits for a lot of people. The Board should revisit a rule that makes most bike share trips illegal because increased physical activity and decreased use of motor vehicles are good public health outcomes.

There is no good reason for King County to maintain this law any further. If the goal in 1993 was to increase helmet use, then that goal has been achieved whether due to the law or due to other changes in Pacific Northwest cycling culture. Enforcement of the law does more harm than good, and that harm falls disproportionately on people of color. National best practices from safe streets professionals recommend against helmet laws, stranding King County’s law a relic of poor public policy crafted with good intentions. We all want to prevent head injuries, but this law is not the way to do it.

Here’s an excerpt from the Helmet Law Working Group’s letter to the Board of Health:

Based on this holistic public health view, we urge the Board of Health to fully repeal the helmet law for both adults and youth. Additionally:

  • We oppose options that would fall short of preventing dangerous police interactions and ending punitive, armed enforcement, such as reducing fines, authorizing warnings but not citations, downgrading the violation to a secondary offense, or limiting the mandate to youth only.
  • If preserving the helmet mandate is regarded as essential, we ask that the current Board of Health Code Title 9 language be revised to explicitly disallow enforcement, similar to Seattle & King County Public Health’s COVID-19 mask mandate.
  • We recommend the addition of a clause to Title 9 that would prevent a negligent party in a crash from escaping responsibility for their own negligence by blaming a cyclist for not wearing a helmet, similar to Oregon (ORS 814.489) and New York (VAT §1238.7) state law. This would place the responsibility for injuries where it belongs, on the party responsible for the crash.
  • We encourage Public Health to increase access to helmets within homeless and low-income populations by expanding existing efforts or establishing a new program to provide subsidized or free helmets at bike shops, homeless service providers and shelters, and community centers.
  • We support promotion of helmet use through a renewed public education campaign, as long as such a campaign does not exaggerate the protective effects of helmet use or the risk associated with bicycling.
  • We urge Seattle & King County Public Health to recognize that motor vehicles pose the greatest threat to cyclist safety, and to focus on interventions that are vastly more effective than helmet mandates at preventing injuries for bicyclists, pedestrians, and all road users, such as reduced vehicle speeds and safer infrastructure. We ask that the Board of Health commit to researching and discussing these strategies in their 2022 work plan.

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16 responses to “Support for repealing all-ages helmet law grows as Health Board begins debate”

  1. J Doe

    Every cyclist who suffers trauma due to non use of a helmet is a tragedy even with a helmet law, like seat belt laws, but it will be more tragic for families without a helmet law. The lack of logical and critical thinking is appalling and reminiscent of propaganda.

    1. This is the kind of comment that is only possible by someone who has never visited the Netherlands.

      1. Ballard Biker

        The Netherlands has completely separated cyclist infrastructure and universal healthcare. Seattle (and the US) are definitely not the Netherlands.

        I don’t like the law being used in a racist manner, but it seems like completely throwing out the law is an extremely shortsighted thing to do instead of attempting to fix the problems.

        A similar thing happened with traffic enforcement in Seattle and now I can’t cross streets at striped intersections in heavy pedestrian Ballard without taking my life into my own hands.

      2. I don’t see why we can’t do both at the same time. While we have a long way to go, there are places in Seattle that are very safe to ride without a helmet. I used to use bike share as part of my commute – 1 mile on the Burke Gilman Trail in order to connect with transit. I didn’t use a helmet. What I was doing was perfectly safe and should be legal.

      3. Ballard Biker

        I didn’t use a helmet.

        I can’t comprehend why someone would value their brain so little to take a chance that is unnecessary to take.

      4. Josh

        The majority of lane-miles for cyclists in the Netherlands are shared streets, not separated routes. They do have a very extensive network of separated facilities, but most people don’t live on them, and they don’t load their bikes on cars to get to a path.

        Beyond that, though, helmets are not designed to protect from the forces of car/bike collisions. They’re engineered and tested only for the fall from cycling height to the ground in a bicycle-only crash.

        This is another instance of helmets distracting from the real risks to cyclists. If you want to address the risks of riding in mixed traffic, you need to address the mixed traffic itself – separating where appropriate, calming where shared streets make sense.

      5. I always wear a helmet

        Really important point about how many lane-miles in the Netherlands are in fact shared with cars.

        Which leads to the next vital point Josh made:
        – Separate where needed (usually with faster/heavier traffic)
        – Calm where appropriate to share (usually with slower/lighter traffic)

        Advocacy in the US seems to be heavy on separation, leaving off the huge benefits to be had by identifying lighter-traffic streets amenable to calming.

        There are lots of low-traffic streets, and calming often introduces far fewer conflicts than doing separation safely.

        *Both* strategies have a vital part to play.

  2. eddiew

    SBB: “This disparity in enforcement is reason enough to repeal this law.” No. There is disparity in enforcement of all laws. We want to continue laws against speeding, DUI, failure to yield, theft, etc. We need good public health and humane enforcement. Let’s reform enforcement. See Ballard Biker comment above; it seems sound.

  3. I always wear a helmet

    Commenter above may have missed all the bits about how helmets don’t prevent crashes, helmet mandates allow victim blaming when crashes happen, and that helmet use is high and likely to remain so (eg Portland which has no mandate).

    An unnecessary law with bad side effects is very worth reconsideration and repeal.

    I would add that J Doe’s logic seems suspect. An injury while not wearing a helmet is equally tragic (due to the actual injury) regardless of the law (or whether they were wearing pink, or…)

    1. Ballard Biker

      Commenter above may have missed all the bits about how helmets don’t prevent crashes, helmet mandates allow victim blaming when crashes happen, and that helmet use is high and likely to remain so (eg Portland which has no mandate).

      Helmet use in Portland is not high. It’s definitely less than 50%.

      1. Ethan Campbell

        Ballard, I don’t think that’s correct. Our working group looked at this, and the best and most recent data available are from the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s 2014 bike count. Their methodology was thorough, surveying over 200 locations across the city, and they found average helmet use of 81%. Report here: https://www.portlandoregon.gov/transportation/article/545858. The annual trend since 1992 shows a steady increase in citywide helmet use despite no change in their statewide youth-only helmet law.

        I actually find this to be one of the more persuasive lines of evidence that taking away our county all-ages helmet law will not drastically (or even appreciably) decrease helmet use.

        But if that’s not convincing enough, I’d suggest checking out the peer-reviewed studies by Dennis et al. (2013) and Teschke et al. (2015) linked in our report. Their work demonstrates that helmet laws have had no detectable effect on population-wide head injury rates across tens of thousands of bike injuries in Canadian provinces (where helmet laws are enforced at low rates, similar to Seattle).

        We wouldn’t be advocating for this change if we thought it would lead to less safety for cyclists.

  4. If the helmet law is going to selectively enforced or not enforced, it should go. Otherwise it will continue to be aligned with racial profiling.

    That said, there is no place riding a bike is safe without a helmet, unless you are going walking speed. Sure, there are places where the *risk* of a head injury is lower, but that doesn’t reduce the *effect* of a head injury. Only a helmet does that.

    Frankly, I think we should keep the helmet law and require bike shares to include helmets. I notice that one of the scooter companies has a helmet attached to the scooter. Why not have the same for bikes ?

    I would be comfortable modifying the helmet law to exclude adults, who can make their own decisions. But keep it for minors. Again, the helmets must be available on bike shares or the whole thing is mute.

  5. Clark in Vancouver

    This is good to see. I notice though that they’re not even going to get into questioning whether head injury is even a common enough issue to warrant the existing law.

    A single study in 1989 appeared to show good reduction but then in 1997 they retracted that and said there wasn’t. Too late by then, the myth of head injury took hold and laws got passed based on a single wrong study.

    Since it hasn’t helped anyone and there is no proof that they’re needed, why mandate them?

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      The group’s report does have a section addressing this. Here’s an excerpt:

      “Olivier and Creighton (2016) analyze 40 studies and find that helmet use is associated with a 51% reduction in the likelihood of head injury, a 69% reduction in the likelihood of serious head injury, and a 65% reduction in the likelihood of fatal head injury.

      Høye (2018a) reviews 55 studies and finds that helmet use is associated with a 48% reduction in the likelihood of head injury, a 60% reduction in the likelihood of serious head injury, and a 34% reduction in death associated with cycling.”

      The findings are lower than the figure in the 1989 study, but they are still significant. However, it needs to be noted that the reduction they are talking about is among people who are injured badly enough while biking to require significant medial attention. It is NOT saying that helmets reduce the biking head injury rate by that much because it does not factor in how many people are biking in total. I think people get confused by these studies and think they are saying more about helmets than they really are. Of those people who crashed hard enough to get into the database, a helmet was about 50-70% effective at preventing or reducing a head injury. This data does not include the majority of bike crashes where people get scraped up but never go to the hospital. And it does not include all the people biking without injury. This is not a criticism of the study, it’s a criticism of how people (and the media) interpret the study.

      In other words, the studies are basically saying, “Of the fairly small percentage of people who are in a bad enough crash where a helmet might be needed, helmets were 50-70% effective at preventing or reducing the severity of a head injury.” It is NOT saying, “Helmets reduce biking head injuries by 50-70%.” Because in order to say that, you would need to factor in the total number of people biking. And then things get messy because there are so many other factors that contribute to head injuries, most importantly: Likelihood of a collision or crash.

      And the studies are DEFINITELY NOT saying, “Helmet laws reduce head injuries by 50-70%.” Because law or no law, lots of people will still be wearing helmets. In fact, it’s not clear at this point how many people wear a helmet because of the law.

      Just like there is a lot of stuff out there overstating the effectiveness of helmets and hyper-focusing on them as the panacea of bicycle safety, there are also people arguing that helmets don’t do anything and are pointless. The truth is somewhere in the middle. It’s up to us to determine where bike safety energy is best placed, and to look holistically at the real life impact of bike safety policies.

  6. Josh

    It’s important to keep safety in context – no activity is absolutely safe, you’ll still die if you never get off the couch. So the question should be, how dangerous is casual cycling without a helmet *compared to other risks*?

    As it turns out, the health benefits of moderate cycling greatly outweigh the risks of riding without a helmet. (See Copenhagen Heart Studies.) That’s true at just 25 miles a week, riding at a typical urban/utility cycling pace. And it’s independent of both fitness level and other athletic activity.

    If you care about *how* someone dies, a helmet law makes sense. But if you care about *when* someone dies, casual cycling without a helmet adds to life expectancy, it doesn’t subtract.

    1. Josh

      Riding with a helmet does appear to be modestly safer than riding without one. It’s worth doing that voluntarily. But making it mandatory will deter some people from riding without a helmet – they’ll walk instead, or drive, or take the bus, all of which correlate to shorter lifespans than moderate urban cycling without a helmet.

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