The King County Board of Health’s recent repeal of the law requiring cyclists to wear a helmet, over concerns it was being used to target people of color, is the wrong solution to the problem — one that not only fails to address unfair policing but may also result in increased death and injury.
For the sake of public safety, the board should reconsider.
There is no question that discriminatory enforcement of the helmet law is unacceptable, and for far too long it’s apparently been the norm in Seattle — the largest jurisdiction affected by the county’s rollback.
An analysis by Central Seattle Greenways of the city’s police data found that Black riders were almost four times more likely to receive a helmet citation than white cyclists. Native American cyclists were twice as likely to be cited, and enforcement against Latino riders was 1.4 times higher.
A 2020 Crosscut investigation also determined that since 2017, nearly half of all helmet citations were given to homeless people. While differences in helmet use and cycling rates by race and housing status explain some of the disparities, “the remainder can reasonably be attributed to inequitable policing,” according to Central Seattle Greenways.
It is clear there is a problem with unfair policing, but it’s just as evident that bike helmets help keep riders safe and that helmet laws play an important role.
Wearing a helmet reduces the likelihood of serious head injury by 60%, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, and research has shown that while the effectiveness of helmet laws varies, they do increase helmet use.
That protection cannot only mean the difference between life and death — 79% of those fatally injured in bike crashes between 2010 and 2017 were not wearing a helmet — it can also prevent traumatic brain injuries that have devastating lifelong impacts.
“This rollback weakens our ability to make that clear message to families and riders,” said Dr. Beth Ebel, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “This is the critical safety measure, the most important safety measure that can be done to protect you.”
Ebel, along with experts from Harborview Medical Center and Seattle Children’s Hospital, made it clear to the health board that more needs to be done to protect cyclists, not less. To the board’s credit, it committed to expand low-cost or free access to helmets, as well as increase education on cycling safety and improved biking infrastructure. The recent King County budget also allocates more than $220,000 for free helmets and bike safety measures.
However, education alone does not change behavior, and a free helmet is useless if it’s left at home. These efforts must exist in tandem with an equitably applied law that’s part of a broad set of tools that can be used to keep people safe.
Advocates say addressing the larger structural problems surrounding policing will take time and that if the law remained on the books it would continue to lead to pretextual traffic stops that endanger vulnerable populations.
This is a blinkered view. Public health demands both a law that can reinforce safety measures and the ability for everyone in the community to ride without worry they will be unfairly targeted. Getting rid of the law is easy, working on ways to guarantee equitable enforcement is hard.
It’s a shame the health board took the easiest path.