In the face of data showing enforcement has been both minimal and has disproportionately affected people of color and those experiencing homelessness, the King County Board of Health voted Thursday to repeal its decades-old mandatory helmet law for bicycle riders. The repeal goes into effect in 30 days.
The board, made up of elected officials and medical experts from cities across the county, voiced its support for the voluntary use of helmets, passing a resolution encouraging riders to don the protective gear. But board member and King County Councilmember Joe McDermott said there are other ways of encouraging helmet use that do not rely on law enforcement, including educational campaigns and free helmet distribution. The Metropolitan King County Council recently budgeted more than $200,000 to buy helmets and expand education.
“Helmets save lives, full stop. But the disproportional enforcement of the requirement gives us concern” about how it affects people who are homeless and communities of color, McDermott said before the vote.
The repeal affects most of King County, including Seattle. However, 17 cities in the county, making up roughly one-third of the county’s population, have their own laws mandating helmet use that won’t be affected by Thursday’s vote.
Board member and King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles was the sole vote against the repeal.
The action came despite criticism from some in the medical and legal communities who argued the law remained a necessary mechanism to ensure helmet usage remains high in Seattle. Sheley Anderson, attorney for the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington and regional vice president of the NAACP, had pushed the board to do a deeper analysis on the costs and benefits of the repeal, particularly as it relates to communities of color.
“We need the impact analysis to actually look at, does the actual helmet law itself reduce brain injuries?” she said.
Emergency room physicians have also expressed concern about the law’s repeal. Dr. Steven Mitchell, medical director of the emergency department at Harborview Medical Center, said his opposition to the repeal is rooted in his daily experiences with people who’ve suffered a head injury.
“I worry that the culture of people who are riding their bicycles will begin to shift away from the absolute necessity to wear them every single time,” he said in an interview.
But advocates for the repeal argued that, while riders should wear helmets, empowering police to mandate their use is neither effective nor fair.
“We’re unequivocally pro helmet-use,” said Lee Lambert, executive director of the Cascade Bicycle Club. However, “we have concerns about disproportionate enforcement and how it impacts people of color and unhoused people. If we’re centering safety, there are other ways we can make bicycling safer.”
Ethan Campbell, whose group Central Seattle Greenways has studied how the law is being enforced, argued it was not serving its intended purpose and was being used as a pretext to stop people.
“It’s this perfect microcosm of what’s broken with our approach to policing,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s an ill-conceived law that’s feeding into highly discretionary, mostly pretextual stops.”
The law mandating that bike riders wear helmets was first passed by King County in 1993 and was expanded to explicitly include Seattle in 2003.
At the time, studies suggested that implementing helmet laws increased helmet use, especially among young people. Studies also repeatedly confirmed that helmet use reduces the severity of injuries. Fatalities and severe head injuries among cyclists decreased following the law’s implementation, according to research from Harborview Medical Center.
But recent data connecting helmet laws to their use and improved outcomes for cyclists is less clear. In Seattle, helmet use among riders of private bikes is as high as 91%, according to one study. Meanwhile, in Portland, which does not have an all-ages helmet law, one study found use is similarly high. A study in King County could not find any discernible impact on hospitalization rates following the law’s expansion into Seattle in 2003, although severity of injuries did decrease around the same time.
“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 requirements for helmets was new and carried weight,” said McDermott. “But I think societal norms and expectations have changed significantly in the 30 years since.”
The law came up for reconsideration this year after a Crosscut analysis of helmet citations dating back to 2017. That analysis showed that, even as bike sharing has become common, enforcement by Seattle police is minimal. When the law was used to issue a citation, at a cost of $30, nearly half the tickets went to homeless people, raising the concern that it was being used predominantly as a pretext to stop people for something else. In fact, in 2019, a Seattle Municipal Court judge tossed a firearm charge against a man that he received after being stopped for not wearing a helmet, calling the stop an illegal pretext.
A separate analysis from Central Seattle Greenways found that Black riders were roughly four times more likely to receive a citation for not wearing a helmet.
As the board considered the law’s repeal over several months, opposition was initially muted. But more recently, the board has heard from people concerned about the impacts of doing so. As a result, they tabled the repeal in October.
“The key point is that education alone does not work,” said attorney Richard Adler, who works regularly with people with severe head injuries, including Zackery Lystedt, for whom the Lystedt law, related to concussion protocol in youth sports, is named. “It’s not as effective as education plus legislation.”
McDermott said he believes the case for repeal since October has strengthened. In addition to the money budgeted for helmet distribution by the county council, the Seattle Police Department recently announced it would no longer prioritize enforcement of the helmet law, among other low-level traffic offenses. Additionally, the county intends to monitor closely the impacts of the repeal in the coming years, he said.
Board member Kohl-Welles said she opposed repealing the mandate before more work was done to understand the implications of doing so. Doing otherwise, she said, was “mind-boggling.”
“The repeal to me is premature,” she said during the meeting Thursday, pounding the table at one point. “It puts the cart before the horse.”
She offered several amendments to the repeal, including delaying the repeal by a year, leaving the law on the books but eliminating ticketing and keeping the law in place for people under 18. None of the amendments passed.
With its vote Thursday, King County joins Tacoma, which voted to repeal its helmet law in 2020. Data similarly showed it was being used only rarely and disproportionately against Black riders.