Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Racial disparities prompt calls to repeal King County’s bicycle helmet law

A snow-covered bicycle is locked to a bridge as unusually light traffic drives past below on Highway 520 near the University of Washington on Jan. 19, 2012, in Seattle.  (Associated Press)
By Michelle Baruchman Seattle Times

In the fall of 2019, a white man spat on Edwin Lindo while he was riding his bicycle with a friend around Mercer Island.

“It gets on my jersey and I’m like, ‘I can’t believe this is happening right now,’ ” he recalled.

Lindo, who identifies as Central American Indigenous from Nicaragua and El Salvador, and his friend, Aaron Bossett, who is Black, viewed the encounter as a racist attempt to exclude them from the biking community.

But even before that incident, Lindo knew Black and Brown people were treated differently while bike-riding, taking transit, driving and using other forms of transportation.

Now, Lindo has joined a chorus of individuals and organizations calling for the repeal of the King County law that requires bicyclists to wear helmets because of disproportionate enforcement, especially among Black, Native and homeless riders.

“Folks aren’t riding around without helmets because it’s fun. They’re doing it because helmets aren’t cheap,” said Lindo, who wears a helmet when he rides and started the biking group NorthStar Cycling Club to support riders who are Black, Indigenous and people of color. “Buy them a helmet and you won’t have to penalize them.”

The biking organizations Cascade Bicycle Club and Washington Bikes encourage riders to wear helmets but oppose the mandatory laws. The street newspaper Real Change also opposes the requirement. Other cities, including Tacoma, have already repealed mandatory helmet laws.

Medical experts, however, say studies show helmets help prevent head injuries and they worry about loosening such laws.

“The data are very clear: helmets prevent brain injury. All should be protected,” Dr. Frederick Rivara, professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine, said in an email.

An analysis of 1,667 helmet citations issued between 2003 and 2020 in Seattle found that Black cyclists received helmet infractions at a rate nearly four times higher than white cyclists. Native American/Alaska Native cyclists were cited at a rate more than two times higher than white riders.

Asian/Pacific Islander cyclists, however, receive infractions at rates 10 times lower than white cyclists. Municipal Court records do not distinguish between white and Latino/Hispanic individuals.

University of Washington doctoral student Ethan C. Campbell conducted the infractions analysis for Central Seattle Greenways, a branch of the street safety group Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. After this summer’s protests for racial justice, he and about 30 other people began meeting monthly to discuss ways to make the transportation system work better for people of color.

Reviewing the helmet law could offer “a valuable opportunity to both address the issue of the law’s deeply inequitable enforcement and refocus the goal on a broader definition of cyclist safety that does not involve police,” he said.

In addition to Campbell’s research, an analysis of court records by the news organization Crosscut found that 43% of citations under the county’s all-ages helmet law issued since 2017 were given to people struggling with homelessness.

The King County Board of Health on Thursday unanimously agreed to add studying the “disparate impacts” of bicycle helmet enforcement to the board’s 2021 work plan.

“I encourage bicycle riding, but there should not be any sociocultural variation in terms of enforcement and certainly not citations that cost money,” Metropolitan King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who introduced the proposal, said in an interview.

“We need to understand this a lot better to weigh the benefits of enforcing for safety reasons versus unfair enforcement that appears to be happening,” she said.

Data shows disparities

The King County Board of Health established the helmet law in 1993, which was updated to include Seattle in 2003. If King County repeals its law, Seattle’s mandate also goes away. (Cities such as Kent, Spokane and Renton implemented their own local laws.)

Officers use discretion in whether to issue a citation or a warning to violators, said Detective Valerie Carson with the Seattle Police Department. The number of helmet citations in Seattle has declined dramatically in recent years, according to the analysis of Municipal Court data, with only 29 issued in 2019.

Violators can face a $30 fine, but that can rise to $154 when court fees are added.

Criminalizing behavior is “not the best way that we see to achieve safety across our communities,” said Tamar Shuhendler, a spokesperson for Cascade Bicycle Club in advocating for the repeal. However, the organization continues to “100% support the use of helmets,” said Paul Tolmé, another Cascade spokesperson.

Disproportionate enforcement of helmet laws is found in other cities as well.

In Tampa, Florida, for example, the U.S. Department of Justice found that while Black people represent 26% of the population, they accounted for 73% of bicycle-related stops by police.

The helmet law is similar to a soda tax or seat belt law – an example of using laws to encourage individuals toward making healthier choices.

Violators are, in theory, only hurting themselves. However, “some would argue that society suffers because of the cost of a traumatic brain injury is high on the health care system,” Campbell said.

On the other hand, he said, “there’s a case to be made that helmets are inconvenient. They’re expensive relative to the cost of a bike, and you have to carry them around.”

Rivara, the UW pediatrics professor, cited research published in 1989 that he co-authored as justification for keeping the helmet law. The study found, among other things, that of 99 cyclists who suffered serious brain injuries in Seattle over a year, only 4% were wearing helmets.

Using statistical analysis to control for age, sex, income, education, cycling experience and the severity of the accident, the researchers concluded that helmets reduced the risk of head injury by 85% and the risk of brain injury by 88%.

However, the widely circulated study has been criticized for its methodology, and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration removed references to certain claims made in the study from its website.

Dr. Beth Ebel, who is also a professor of pediatrics at UW, said the benefits of helmets have been shown in many other studies over time. Ebel supports keeping the law to normalize helmet-wearing but has concerns with racial discrimination in enforcement.

Alternatives to helmet mandates

Many advocates, including those calling for a helmet law repeal, offer alternatives to encourage helmet use. Kohl-Welles suggested subsidies and including helmets as part of a bicycle purchase.

Lindo suggested each police officer keep at least 10 helmets in his or her trunk “so that if they see someone without a helmet, they can give them one for free.”

Alexander Lew, a member of the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways research working group and of the Seattle Bicycle Advisory Board, said streets should be designed better so people biking are less likely to get hit by cars.

Lew said the helmet law is well intentioned, but the disproportionate enforcement “is really troubling to see.”

“I wear a helmet every time I ride a bike, but it shouldn’t be something that is criminalized,” he said.

Traffic Lab is a Seattle Times project that digs into the region’s thorny transportation issues, spotlights promising approaches to easing gridlock, and helps readers find the best ways to get around. It is funded with the help of community sponsors Alaska Airlines, Kemper Development Co., Madrona Venture Group, NHL Seattle, PEMCO Mutual Insurance Company and Seattle Children’s hospital. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over Traffic Lab content.