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King County Board of Health considering repeal of bike helmet law due to biased enforcement

A cyclist pedals in traffic near Pike Place Market as snow falls Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.
Ted S. Warren
/
The Associated Press file
A cyclist pedals in traffic near Pike Place Market as snow falls Monday, Feb. 11, 2019.

Nearly half of citations by Seattle police under King County’s bike helmet law went to people struggling with homelessness. And Black people were four times more likely than white people to be ticketed for not wearing a helmet.

That analysis, reported first by the online news outlet Crosscut and subsequently by researchers at the University of Washington and Central Seattle Greenways, has led King County’s Board of Health to evaluate its bicycle helmet law and consider a repeal.  

On Thursday, the board got a briefing from bike advocates who insist they want people to wear helmets. But requiring them is problematic.   

“The police will use the law just to stop you and harass you,” explained a vendor for the homelessness newspaper Real Change, who chose to remain anonymous because he says he’s had multiple run-ins with police due to the helmet law. 

His story was told by Crosscut in the initial reporting that led the council to re-evaluate the law.  

"It's gotten to the point where I'd rather just walk than even ride a bike, you know. … I just think it's an unfair, unequal law,” he told the health board.

His feeling is supported by the latest research from Central Seattle Greenways' Helmet Law Working Group. Ethan Campell presented it to board members, noting the inequity is not limited to Seattle or to unhoused people.

“These disparities are intersectional,” he said. “We know that our county’s homeless population is disproportionately Black as well as disproportionately Indigenous,” he said.

And those groups are often harder hit by fines that start at $30 but can escalate to more than $150 when court fees are added.

“The majority of homeless citations in Seattle have gone unpaid, at which point they get sent to collections. And this is likely in no small part due to the populations that have been ticketed,” Campbell said.

He suggested the costs of administering tickets could be better spent on subsidizing helmets.

The board also heard from the county’s manager of violence and injury prevention, from a local pediatrician who has researched the efficacy and promotion of bicycle helmets and from the county’s equity director, who reminded the audience that it was not quite a year ago that King County declared racism a public health crisis.

All seemed to indicate a need for finding ways to make cycling safer and to improve access to helmets for those who can’t afford them. But no one defended the bike helmet law outright.

In discussion after the briefing, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay told his fellow board members he would love to see them repeal the law. In its place, he said, he’d like to see a safety campaign and free helmets to encourage their use. 

“And if we do that, I think we can have a much more holistic approach to public health rather than criminalizing people through this helmet law, which, as we heard repeatedly, has a disproportional and negative impact on our unhoused neighbors and our Black and brown neighbors,” Zahilay said.

King County has required bike helmets since 1993. In 2003, that law was updated to include Seattle. There is no statewide helmet requirement.

In Pierce County, Tacoma recently repealed its helmet requirement, amid concerns about unequal enforcement toward Black people.