Under new policy, Seattle Police should no longer stop people for biking without a helmet

Seattle Police should no longer pull people over simply for riding a bicycle without wearing a helmet, according to a new department policy.

These violations do not have a direct connection to the safety of other individuals on the roads, paths, or sidewalks,” wrote SPD Chief Adrian Diaz in a letter (PDF) to Seattle Inspector General Lisa Judge about the policy changes. In addition to bicycle helmet violations, officers have also been instructed to cease stopping people for driving with expired or missing vehicle registration, or driving with low-level violations like stuff hanging from the rear-view mirror or non-obstructing windshield cracks.

All of these violations are still illegal and can be enforced, they just can’t be the primary reason for officers to initiate a stop. So if an officer stops someone for riding through a red light, for example, they can tack on the helmet ticket as well.

These changes came out of a process that Inspector General Judge initiated last year, Publicola reported:

The announcement comes after months of discussions between the police, the Office of Inspector General, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and civil rights and police oversight groups. Judge organized the conversations herself last year, when she wrote a letter to Diaz urging him to consider removing police from low-level traffic enforcement. “Stopping a person is a significant infringement on civil liberty and should be reserved for instances when a person is engaged in criminal conduct that harms others,” Judge wrote. “Stops for government-created requirements like car tabs, with nothing but a potential monetary penalty, do not justify the risk to community or to officers.”

In Diaz’s letter, he cites the fact that the King County Board of Health is considering abolishing the helmet code anyway. The Board was very close to taking this action during its November meeting, but decided to delay the vote. King County’s helmet law is very rare, and a large coalition has formed to urge a repeal. There are many concerns about the unintended consequences of the law, but biased policing is one of the biggest.

“In Seattle, nearly half of all helmet citations since 2017 were issued to people experiencing homelessness,” the Helmet Law Working Group wrote in a lengthy 2021 report. “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.”

Hopefully the Board of Health takes this as yet another reason to move forward with their repeal because now there is a confusing mismatch in King County where the largest municipal law enforcement agency has effectively made biking without a helmet a secondary offense but other agencies still treat it as a primary offense. It’s time for the county’s helmet regulations to come into alignment with pretty much everywhere else in the country. This law is a distraction taking up a lot of energy that would be better put to use building safer streets that prevent collisions from happening in the first place.

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5 Responses to Under new policy, Seattle Police should no longer stop people for biking without a helmet

  1. Chris says:

    How perfect to let those who have no health insurance put themselves at even greater risk of head injuries which the public taxpayers will now be paying for when they go to Harborview to have their broken head put back together. For the price of one uninsured persons stay in the ICU you could buy bike helmets for every person in Seattle. So much for social justice and compassion.

    • Scott says:

      Chris,
      It’s not clear that helmets are the driving force behind road safety for cyclists. The US has one of the highest share of cyclists using helmets and also one of the highest levels of road fatalities for cyclists. It seems pretty clear that infrastructure and separation from cars would do a lot more for safety than buying bike helmets for every person in Seattle. I wear a helmet whenever I ride, but it’s naive to think that buying everyone a helmet will solve traffic fatalities of cyclists.

    • Ed says:

      If you’re so concerned for the poor why don’t you advocate for more housing and better health care for the poor instead of advocating to harass people more. I am certain that most of the people who will now decide to bike without a helmet have health insurance. In The Netherlands no one uses helmets and they have fewer much better outcomes. This new policy is a good thing for everyone.

  2. asdf2 says:

    I think people are grossly exaggerating the impact of this. The likelihood of getting a helmet ticket is small enough that it’s never been a deterrent from helmet less riding anyway, what is a deterrent is the possibility of one’s head getting banged up in an accident.

    Even if it was, does this need to be something imposed by the county vs. a personal decision? It’s not like helmetless riders are overwhelming hospitals like people who refuse COVID vaccines.

    I personally always ride with a helmet, but I also think police have better things to do with their time than writing helmet tickets. Giving helmet tickets to people only when already stopped for breaking other laws seems like a reasonable compromise between refocusing police to where they can do more good vs. repealing the helmet rule, entirely.

  3. Jethro says:

    With all that time on their hands maybe the police can find the person that stole my bike, or my wife’s bike, maybe even our neighbor’s bike…

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