UPDATE 2/17: The Board of Health voted 11-2 to repeal the law, citing serious concerns about inequitable police enforcement. The general sentiment of the majority was that they still strongly recommend helmet use, just not the police-enforced strategy for achieving that public health goal.
The King County Board of Health should vote on whether or not to repeal the county’s rare all-ages bicycle helmet law during their meeting Thursday. This would put King County in line with most of the rest of the world, which does not use police to enforce the use of bicycle helmets.
The Board nearly repealed the law in the autumn, but decided to hold off on the decision at the time. Since then, Seattle Police have changed their policy and say they will no longer stop people solely for biking without a helmet. This puts extra pressure on the Health Board to take the law off the books in order to make sure the law is as uniform as possible across police agencies.
A large coalition, including major biking and safe streets advocacy organizations like Cascade Bicycle Club, Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and even the national League of American Bicyclists have signed onto the effort to repeal the law. But the most recent repeal effort got kickstarted following a 2020 Real Change investigation into an incident in which a man experiencing homelessness was ticketed for not wearing a helmet after someone drove into and injured him. Subsequent research by the Helmet Law Working Group found that nearly half of Seattle helmet law citations went to people experiencing homelessness. Police also issue the tickets inequitably.
“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,” the report found. “Differences in helmet use between populations cannot explain these disparities.”
Arguments against the repeal typically come from an understandable desire for people not to get head injuries. The Board of Health is pairing their proposed ordinance to repeal the helmet law with a resolution supporting the use of helmets and improving infrastructure to be safer for people biking. So no, they aren’t saying that helmets are bad or that people shouldn’t wear them. They are saying that it should not be something enforced through the police.
The Board also really did their homework on this issue. The information packet included ahead of Thursday’s meeting (PDF) shows that they read through many studies about the effectiveness of helmet laws. The findings of these studies often seem to contradict each other, a fact the Board notes in its summary. It’s difficult and maybe impossible to isolate the helmet law variable when there are so many other factors that play into bike safety, including local infrastructure changes and increases in the number of people biking. Even tracking helmet use is complicated. For example, Portland, Oregon, does not have a helmet law, yet helmet use is rather high there like it is in Seattle. So did the 1990s King County helmet law encourage more helmet use, or did helmet use just become more common in general? To phrase it another way, how many people are only wearing helmets because of the law?
It’s good to know the Board did not only read the studies that clearly support repealing the law. They waded deep into the issue and came out supporting helmet use, but not a helmet law.
In addition to repealing the law, the proposed resolution would encourage King County cities to also consider repealing their helmet laws to be consistent with their neighbors. Cities with their own helmet laws include Auburn, Bellevue, Black Diamond, Burien, Des Moines, Duvall, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Issaquah, Kent, Lake Forest Park, Maple Valley, North Bend, Pacific, Renton, SeaTac and Snoqualmie.
Cascade Bicycle Club has a handy online tool you can use to send a message of support to the Board of Health. Here’s the sample text of the message:
I’m writing to express my support for the Board of Health’s upcoming vote to repeal the bicycle helmet law. The Board has done an admirable job at responding to community concerns about the inequitable impacts of helmet enforcement, and I encourage them to finish their thoughtful deliberations by voting for repeal.
I support the full repeal of the King County bicycle helmet law. I stand with the many leaders who have endorsed this recommendation, and the community led Helmet Law Working Group, which has compiled research and data that highlight the harm caused by this law.
Repealing this law is the only way to ensure that punitive, armed enforcement and police harassment of people not wearing helmets will be curtailed.
I support your efforts to replace enforcement of helmets with education and access to helmets. We recognize that this issue can be confusing but the research is clear; the built environment – including protected bike networks and measures such as safer vehicle speeds – matter. Research is also clear that helmet laws today have no relationship to population wide head injury rates of cyclists. This message is not a rebuke of helmet usage, only a call to repeal a law that causes harm to our BIPOC community members.
I am thankful that you and your colleagues on the Board of Health have chosen to examine this important issue during a time characterized by other urgent, important work. I support the repeal legislation and resolution that are before the Board, and hope that you will support a vote to fully repeal the bicycle helmet law in order to protect marginalized community members.