A year after the King County Board of Health repealed its mandatory helmet law for bicyclists, citing uneven and inequitable enforcement, helmet use in the county remains high, according to a study by Public Health – Seattle & King County.
Among the nearly 2,000 people at over 50 locations observed by researchers riding personal bicycles, 91% were wearing a helmet. “I’d put our helmet-use rate against anybody at this point,” said Tony Gomez, manager of violence and injury prevention at Public Health.
That overwhelming majority was undercut slightly by low rates among people using rental bikes and scooters. Just 7 out of 74 people observed on a rented scooter were wearing a helmet; 30 out of 68 people on rented bicycles were wearing one.
Altogether, 85% of people on bicycles and scooters were seen wearing a helmet.
The county did not conduct a similar study immediately before the law’s repeal and therefore can’t point to its direct effect, or lack thereof, on helmet use. The county did, however, conduct a survey in 2004, the year after the law was expanded to include Seattle. It found helmet use at the time was 80%.
The most recent results are also nearly identical to a 2018 study of four locations in Seattle, which found 91% of people on personal bikes wearing a helmet, but just 20% of people on a rented bike.
The Board of Health repealed the 30-year-old law last year. Data from Seattle and the broader county showed police rarely enforced it, despite record numbers of riders. When it was, it was disproportionately targeted toward people of color and those experiencing homelessness, raising suspicion it was being used as a pretext. The fine started at $30 but could escalate up to more than $150 with court fees and repeat offenses.
Board members never disputed the safety benefits of wearing a helmet, funding education campaigns and free helmet distribution alongside the repeal. Local and national data show helmet use greatly reduces the chances of sustaining a brain injury in a crash.
They did question the utility of the law.
“When the Board of Health first adopted a helmet mandate, helmets weren’t part of our social norms and our culture, and so the legal requirement for helmets was new and carried weight,” Metropolitan King County Councilmember and Board of Health member Joe McDermott said last year. “But I think societal norms and expectations have changed significantly in the 30 years since.”
The decision faced pushback from lawyers and physicians, who were concerned it could send a message to young people that it was OK to not wear a helmet. Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who was the first to raise the idea of repealing the law, shared those concerns and was the sole vote to keep it on the books.
Among the skeptics was Dr. Fred Rivara, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. Rivara’s much-cited past work has shown that helmets may decrease serious head injury by as much as 88%. He also co-authored a 2016 study that suggested King County’s helmet law contributed to a decline in head injuries between 2000 and 2010.
Now, however, “I don’t feel that strongly about the helmet law repeal one way or the other, frankly,” he said. His preference was to change how it was enforced rather than roll it back completely, but he believes that a culture of helmet use is already instilled in King County.
He is, though, concerned about less helmet use among bike- and scooter-rental riders. “I think the companies that run these programs have to figure out the issue of no helmets being available,” he said.
After the repeal, Public Health – Seattle & King County was tasked with distributing 1,500 helmets to the community, studying usage and doing safety outreach and education.
The department ended up passing out nearly 1,900 helmets, focusing on South King County, where a disproportionate number of injuries occurred and where helmet use is lower. Staff also worked with homeless service organizations to get helmets to people living outside or in shelter.
The study was conducted with help from a consulting firm, Almeida’s Consulting and Training, which chose high-traffic areas around the county to observe riders. The total number exceeded 2,000 people, which Gomez said provides a “statistically significant indicator of where helmet use is at for the county as a whole.”
Children wore helmets at the highest rate, followed by adults. At 72%, teenagers used them the least.
Helmets were most predominant in northeast King County and were worn the least in southeast King County, at just 68%.
Lee Lambert, executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club, said he wasn’t surprised by the high rates of head protection. “We don’t think the helmet law was the driving factor for helmet usage,” he said. “What I don’t know, but I presume is the case, is that there are fewer stops of people of color and people experiencing homelessness” since the law’s repeal.
Gomez said the department had trouble finding comparisons to other, similarly sized counties. A 2012 nationwide study found fewer than half of adults and children always wore helmets. A 2014 study of New York City concluded that about half of riders had head protection.
Helmets are only a piece of the safety puzzle for bicyclists. “The helmet is not necessarily going to provide the level of prevention for those very serious sorts of trauma cases,” said Gomez.
Bike safety advocates contend that, while helmets are an important tool, designing streets to make riding safer should be the ultimate goal of Seattle and King County.
“We want them to move faster,” said Lambert. “Delays are costing people’s lives.”
King County’s repeal fit into a broader reexamination of how and whether to enforce certain traffic infractions. Tacoma repealed its helmet law shortly before King County. And in this year’s legislative session, one bill would decriminalize jaywalking and another would deprioritize low-level vehicle stops. Despite opposition from Republicans, both bills are still being considered by lawmakers in Olympia.
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