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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Shawn Vestal: Spokane City Council quietly repealed requirement to wear bicycle helmets

When the Spokane City Council adopted a law in 2004 requiring people to wear helmets while riding a bike on city streets, it came after a robust public debate.

People testified before the council. The health officer, police chief and fire chief backed the law, along with a local child-safety coalition. Opponents called it nanny-state politics, and questioned the ability of a busy police department to enforce it.

The mayor vetoed the ordinance, but the council – whose members at the time included Al French, now a county commissioner, and Mary Verner, a future mayor – overrode that veto, 6-1.

When the council voted last October to repeal the law, on the other hand, it came without a public whisper – no agenda notice, no public comment, no discussion among council members on the dais.

Two council members were unaware that their vote on a package of changes to the municipal code included a repeal of the helmet law, as was the mayor when she signed it. The city attorney mistakenly thought the helmet law had been simply moved to a new chapter of city code. People who advocated for the law 19 years ago were surprised to learn it was gone.

Dr. Kim Thorburn, the former county health officer who helped persuade the council to adopt the ordinance, said she was disappointed to learn of the repeal. Helmets are proven to prevent and mitigate death and traumatic brain injuries for cyclists involved in collisions, and a law is one way to help encourage their use, she said.

“It’s a no-brainer – an easy step, evidence-based,” Thorburn said.

But there is a growing debate about the effectiveness of helmet laws – though not one about the effectiveness of helmets themselves. In fact, the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board recommended the law be repealed back in 2020. The chairman of the board, Grant Shipley, said he’s been riding his bicycle around city streets for 35 years, and has, with one exception, always worn a helmet.

“To this day, I think they’re a good idea,” he said.

But he doesn’t think helmet laws are a good idea. They create a cost barrier for some riders, they can be enforced in a discriminatory manner, and there isn’t much proof that a law, versus educational campaigns, produces much of a populationwide impact, he said.

Those concerns have become more widespread in recent years. Some cycling proponents say helmet laws dissuade people from riding bikes, and improving infrastructure and creating a welcoming, inclusive roadway for as many people as possible is more important.

Additionally, concerns about the laws being used disproportionately against homeless people and people of color have prompted some cities to rethink them. The King County Board of Health eliminated its helmet requirement last year, citing data that showed police cited Black and Native American bike riders at much higher rates than whites.

Several other cities, including Tampa and Chicago, have done the same. In a report issued last year, the National Association of City Transportation Officials urged cities to rethink punitive measures enforcing bike safety – citing widespread evidence of pronounced racial disparities in enforcement without demonstrating an improvement in public safety.

Some of these concerns were raised in discussions and at committee meetings in City Hall before last October’s vote, council members say. Also, because the City Council exempted Lime bikes and scooters from helmet regulations a few years ago, the city had a two-tiered system of enforcement in which you were required to wear a helmet on your own bike or scooter – but not on a Lime bike or scooter.

The result was an enforcement challenge for the Spokane Police Department, said department spokeswoman Julie Humphreys. The helmet law, which carried a $25 fine as a civil infraction, was rarely enforced, with citations given “only a handful of times” in recent years, she said.

So it’s not like there wasn’t valid fodder for a public debate.

It’s just that there never was one.

A murky process

The repeal of the bike-helmet law occurred last October, during a somewhat routine council vote to coordinate city and state laws.

It was a form of legislative housekeeping, in which state law was formally adopted by the city, municipal laws that contradict or overlap with state law were repealed, and any municipal laws not covered under state law were recodified in the municipal code.

The bicycle helmet ordinance was one of the laws that was repealed, but it was not recodified elsewhere in the Spokane Municipal Code. The agenda for the vote did not mention the bike law, nor did any council member address it before the vote.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, who voted in favor of reconciling the state and city laws, said she wasn’t aware the helmet-law repeal was a part of it.

“I don’t remember that,” she said.

Councilwoman Karen Stratton also said she wasn’t aware of it when she cast her vote last year.

Even the city legal department, which drafted the ordinance, seemed unclear about what had happened. City Attorney Lynden Smithson initially said that the bike-helmet law was still on the books – had been repealed and moved into a new section of city code governing motorized scooters. When the laws were reconciled in October, he said, the intention was to retain the bike-helmet law.

But a review of the new motorized scooter section shows that helmets are required – still – for anyone operating a “motorized personal transportation device,” though not if that device is a rental unit like a Lime scooter or bike rented by an adult.

It is silent on bicycle riders.

“Maybe the answer is we no longer have a bicycle helmet law,” he said.

Council President Lori Kinnear, who was a council member last year when she co-sponsored the ordinance with then-Council President Breean Beggs, says the repeal was included in the package after council members raised concerns about the Lime exemption and the potential of disproportionate enforcement.

Councilman Zack Zappone was absent for the vote, but said he was aware beforehand that the helmet law would be repealed – using the word “stealthily” to describe the process. He said he had been interested in pressing a discussion about how the law was being applied, but never made any progress in getting data from the police department.

“I was aware (the vote) removed the bike-helmet law, and I was supportive of that,” he said.

Breean Beggs, who is now a Superior Court judge, said council members were focused on the overall package and that there was not much scrutiny or discussion of the helmet law. However, he did say he was aware the vote would repeal the helmet law.

From a public health standpoint, he said, helmet laws are increasingly seen as a net negative, when balancing the desire to encourage more cycling with a law that might be an obstacle to that for some people. There isn’t any debate about the benefits of wearing helmets, but there are questions about the benefits of requiring them, he said.

“The question is how do you get people to wear them – do you do it by law or with education?” Beggs asked.

Council members Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle did not respond to requests for comment last week.

When asked whether the repeal of the law should have come with public discussion and participation, Kinnear said, “Maybe,” adding that it didn’t seem like a matter of great public urgency.

“I don’t remember it being a thing,” she said.

Asked the same question, Zappone said, “I’m ready to have a public discussion about it.”

Stratton said the vote should have been more open.

“Absolutely,” she said. “For transparency’s sake, absolutely. Citizens should know what the issues are and what the choices are.”

‘Wear your helmet’

The evidence supporting the benefits of helmets has grown in the nearly two decades since Spokane passed its ordinance.

A meta-analysis of 119 studies published in May concluded that helmet use reduce head injuries by 60% and brain injuries by 58% in the case of crashes. Fatalities were 73% less likely when a rider was wearing a helmet. Some individual studies did not show clear associations with helmets and reduced injury or death, but the large majority did, the authors said.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommended in 2022 that all states adopt helmet laws. Support is particularly strong for laws covering children.

Deborah Walker, the trauma program coordinator for MultiCare Valley Hospital, works on education campaigns at local schools to encourage kids to wear helmets and to understand the consequences of serious brain injuries. She didn’t express an opinion on whether the helmets should be required by law, but is a strong advocate for people using them whenever they get on a bike, ride a skateboard or scooter, or go skiing or snowboarding.

“We know there’s a benefit to using a bike helmet,” she said. “That’s not even disputable.”

One of the things Walker emphasizes to children is that, unlike other injuries, such as broken bones, brain injuries do not heal quickly or easily.

“Please do wear your helmet, whether it’s a law or not,” she said. “It’s a best practice to prevent injury.”

It is less clear whether helmet laws are effective. One review of studies through 2010 concluded that helmet laws “likely” increased helmet use. Another study compared five jurisdictions between 1991 and 2013 – four with helmet laws and one without – and found helmet use increased dramatically among young riders in cities with a law. Two meta-analyses of injury data found that bike laws for children were associated with fewer bike-related head injuries and deaths.

On the other hand, a Canadian study in 2015 found no association between helmet laws and reduced hospitalizations for head injuries – and a strong association between cities who had higher rates of cycling than others, supporting the safety-in-numbers model.

Pablo Monsivais, an associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at Washington State University and member of the city’s Bicycle Advisory Board, said whether to require helmets is not a straightforward question.

In addition to concerns over whether, and how, such a law is enforced, and whether the laws dissuade people from taking the beneficial step of climbing on a bike, he said that the overall challenges of road safety for cyclists have more to do with infrastructure and transportation policy.

Bike helmets may help, but when riders are on crowded roads with ever-larger motor vehicles, simply requiring helmets in the absence of other efforts to create a safer environment doesn’t truly address the problem.

“It’s a distraction, I think – a misplaced emphasis when it comes to safety on what the bicyclist is doing as opposed to what our road policy should be,” he said.

It’s clear that a lot has changed in the realm of public health and helmet laws since 2004. Two local organizations that staunchly supported the law 19 years ago – the Spokane Regional Health District and Safe Kids Spokane – chose not to comment on the law’s repeal last week.

Kelli Hawkins, health district spokeswoman, shared studies citing concerns about helmet laws and the evolving thinking regarding their effectiveness and unequal enforcement.

Thorburn, the former health officer, has made it her life’s work to reduce preventable injury, and she believes laws are one important way to encourage helmet use without much of a downside – and that more encouragement is needed.

“I’m a cyclist,” she said. “I cannot believe the number of adults riding around with their families without their helmets on.”

She said if there are concerns about unequal enforcement, the problem is with the enforcement, not the law.

“I only want regulation if the benefit can be clearly demonstrated to outweigh the harm to the regulated community,” she said. “What’s the harm to the regulated community to wear a helmet, for heaven’s sake?”

Thorburn said she’s been dismayed to see that many years of focus and effort on improving traffic safety – for motorists, pedestrians, bikers and others – seems to have fallen away as a priority, even as road deaths are increasing.

The National Safety Council tracked a 44% increase in what it deemed preventable bicycle deaths from 2010 to 2020. In 2022, Washington state saw the highest number of overall deaths on state roadways since 1990, at 745.

“I’m just appalled with what’s going on with motor vehicle safety,” she said.