The launch of three new stationless bike-share companies in Seattle is also leading to more — anecdotally at least — helmetless bike riding. Biking without a helmet is against the law, but police are focusing more on education than handing out tickets.
It’s the law: In Seattle and the rest of King County you have to wear a helmet when you ride a bike.
Well you’re supposed to anyway. But enforcement can be … sporadic.
As Seattle is seeing a boom in a new breed of stationless bike-share companies, it’s also, anecdotally at least, seeing increasing numbers of people riding those bikes without helmets.
“The reality is that most of the people using the new companies probably aren’t using helmets,” said Detective Mark Jamieson, a Seattle police spokesman. “I think your typical bike user or commuter that has their bike probably has their own helmet.”
When it comes to helmet-wearing, Seattle police are more interested in education than in enforcement.
“Do we write tickets? Yes, from time to time,” Jamieson said. “We have the discretion to either write a citation or explain the laws and road safety and provide a warning. I think officers probably do the latter more.”
Seattle police issued only 12 helmet citations through the first half of 2017, down from more than 600 in 2011.
The three new private, stationless-bike share companies — LimeBike, ofo and Spin — do not provide bike helmets, although two have given out free helmets at promotional events. Rather, when you use the companies’ apps for the first time, they offer a word of warning (some more sternly than others) that helmet-wearing is the law.
“We’re working hard to make helmet hair a fashion statement,” ofo’s app says. “Please join the movement by wearing a helmet when riding. (Guess it’s also a legal requirement for King County, WA — including Seattle.)”
The three companies could have a total of 6,000 shareable bikes on the streets as soon as three weeks from now, meaning the potential for a lot more helmetless riding.
Seattle’s previous, city-run, bike share system provided helmets at its stations before it shuttered in March. But the vast majority of cities with standard bike-share systems do not. And the city’s mandatory helmet law could have been one of a number of factors that doomed the last bike share.
There are virtually no cities, anywhere in the world, that have both a successful bike-share program and a mandatory helmet law.
Since the new stationless bike-share companies launched early last month, the Cascade Bicycle Club has been conducting an informal survey on how people are liking it. They’re hearing it from both sides on helmets.
“We’re hearing both that people want access to helmets and also that people would like to have a frank discussion about the helmet law,” said Kelsey Mesher, a Cascade policy manager.
Helmet laws, by adding another barrier to biking, can discourage riding in general, and one of the best ways to increase bike safety is to have more bikes on the road.
Seattle has been a pioneer, dating back decades, in promoting helmets.
Helmet use in Seattle increased from about 2 percent to greater than 70 percent, following a helmet-promotion campaign in the 1990s, said Dr. Fred Rivara, vice chair of the University of Washington Department of Pediatrics and a longtime researcher of helmet use and effectiveness.
Rivara’s research, nearly 30 years ago, found that helmets reduced the risk of head injury in a crash by 85 percent.
Rivara co-wrote a 2014 study in the American Journal of Public Health that found cities with bike shares that did not offer helmets saw a higher proportion of bike-related head injuries than other cities.
Now that helmet use has been widely accepted, Rivara said, we should be wary of anything that could reverse that.
“Most of us would never think of even driving to a corner store without putting on a seat belt,” Rivara said. “Well, I think it’s the same with helmets, we don’t want to do anything to change that.”