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.