Community Bicycling Groups Hope to Get ‘Arbitrary’ and ‘Troubling’ Helmet Laws on County Public Health Board’s Agenda in February

by Jack Russillo

Though it’s mostly focused on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the King County Board of Public Health has many other issues to deal with. Systemic racism is high on the list of concerns.

After the county’s public health board announced in June 2020 that racism is a public health crisis, there has been outcry from various community groups that want to shift some of the policies previously supported by the board, such as bicycling helmet laws, that have been shown to disproportionately affect BIPOC and homeless populations. 

Analysis of around 3,000 bike-related infractions from 2003-2020 by Central Seattle Greenways has shown that Black cyclists receive citations from Seattle police at three to four times the rate of white cyclists. This disparity is most pronounced for the 56% of citations that are issued for violating the King County Board of Health bicycle helmet law, 17.3% of which have gone to Black cyclists despite Black riders representing an estimated 4.7% of all Seattle bicycle trips.

Reporting from Crosscut has also revealed that at least 43% of helmet citations since 2017 — and 60% of citations since 2019 — were issued by Seattle police to people struggling with homelessness. In a video published by Real Change, Seattle police invoked the helmet law to cite a homeless cyclist injured in a hit-and-run collision, even though helmet use has no bearing on determination of fault in a crash. This trend also mirrors the disproportionate citations given to Black people jaywalking in Seattle. According to analysis by The Seattle Times, SPD officer Michael Chin wrote 10% of all jaywalking tickets between 2010 and 2016, issuing 31% of them to Black pedestrians.

“There’s one officer who seems to have a habit of avoiding recording the race of the subjects he tickets,” said Ethan Campbell, who helped conduct the research for Central Seattle Greenways. “It seems possible to us that the officer is picking disproportionately Black cyclists and recording them as ‘race unknown.’ But for white cyclists, he provides the race. It’s just the sort of statistical anomaly that stood out as troubling.”

Across the country, from Chicago to Jacksonville to different parts of California, these discriminatory patterns have been documented.

“The data is pretty disturbing,” said Campbell. “We realized this early on. It’s consistent with what we know about jaywalking tickets being enforced in Seattle, which is also about a four times disparity for Black walkers. So we weren’t really that surprised, but we wondered what we could do about this. We know this is a problem. It’s clear that the law is not enforced equitably.”

Campbell noted research done by Charles Brown at Rutgers University has demonstrated that fear of police harassment is a silent but prominent barrier to becoming more engaged with bicycling.

“Black residents from his studies frequently see police harassment as a silent barrier to cycling,” said Campbell. “I think that sums it up. It’s a barrier that, for those of us who are not in a vulnerable group, we don’t perceive that and we’re not affected by it. But it does have this effect of — and I’m using his words here — arresting the mobility of Black communities. I think that’s really powerful. And it’s not just Black communities, we now know from the Crosscut article that it’s homeless communities as well. And from our research, Indigenous cyclists are also cited disproportionately.”

There is no statewide mandate for wearing a helmet while biking, only jurisdictional differences. In 1993, King County enacted its helmet law and, in 2003, it was applied to Seattle, requiring all cyclists to wear a helmet when riding on a public roadway. Not wearing a helmet, along with not using lights in “hours of darkness,” are just some of the offenses that a cyclist can be cited for by a police officer. Helmet citations are the most common infraction, followed by rights and duties of riders violations — traffic infractions, which should be reduced now that bikers can treat stop signs as yield signs. Riding without a light or reflector is the third most ticketed offense, and not yielding the right of way in a crosswalk or public path is the fourth most cited.

“The King County Board of Health declared racism a public health emergency and here we have a very clear policy that promotes racism by the police,” said Tiffani McCoy, the lead advocacy organizer for the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project. “So, why are we not also taking up this thing that is very evidently clear that it is a racist practice?”

Central Seattle Greenways’ research points to an encounter in 2016 when a police dashboard camera video recorded an SPD officer stopping a Black man who was riding a bike without a helmet or lights, using these as an excuse because, as the officer confided to another officer on the scene, he matched the description of a burglary suspect. After a 19-minute-long interaction, the man protested, “There are people all the time riding their bikes without helmets … why are you picking on me? It’s racial profiling.”

“I think it’s important to look at the broad spectrum of how this law is being enforced, how completely arbitrary it is, and if there are better ways to promote this goal of better helmet use,” said Brie Gyncild, a co-leader of Central Seattle Greenways. “We shouldn’t be criminalizing people who aren’t wearing helmets, I think.”

Another layer of the arbitrary enforcement of helmet laws was presented in the video published by Real Change, when SPD officer Evan Pitzner alleged that the Real Change vendor who was riding a Lime bike when they were struck by the vehicle had stolen the bike. Pitzner eventually cited the vendor, who was houseless, for not wearing a helmet. That infraction is listed as a $30 fine but can grow to more than $150 after court fees are applied. Many of the helmet-related citations are still left unpaid.

Private bicycle-share services like Lime advertise their services with their customers all wearing helmets, but they do not provide helmets and often only show a disclaimer that states that users must obey local helmet and traffic laws when using their products. The Emerald contacted Lime for comment on the fact that it doesn’t supply helmets with its service, but the company did not respond.

“It’s not just about the citation, it’s about the encounter,” said Gyncild. “The encounter, whether it involves a citation or not, we have seen far too many of these encounters that have become deadly. Even if they don’t become deadly, they can become harassment that leads to higher levels of stress and deters people from biking and moving around the city in ways that they need to. And if we’re talking about public health effects, we know that there are tremendous health effects of being Black or Brown in our society from the stresses of racism. So any of those encounters and the stresses of those encounters raises the risk of all of those negative outcomes.”

In Tacoma, which has its own history of bike-related stops that turn violent, the helmet requirement was recently repealed, as well as in Spokane, something that local bicycle advocates have hoped would trigger a shift in King County. Cascade Bicycle Club, the country’s largest statewide bicycle nonprofit, supports a county-wide repeal of the helmet law. 

“I think what [King County] could do is start from a racial equity framework and ask what are the presumably unintended consequences of setting something up and defining not wearing a helmet as criminal behavior instead of addressing the problem that we’re trying to solve, which should be reducing the amount of brain injuries,” said Barbara Chamberlain, director of the Active Transportation division at WSDOT. “Whatever that is, how we help support people and promote healthy behaviors. That’s a different starting point from defining something as wrong and then punishing people who are doing it wrong.”

The King County Board of Public Health will meet next on February 18, when Central Seattle Greenways hopes the necessary amendment to add the topic of the helmet law to the 2021 work plan is introduced. If that is successful, the law would likely be reviewed for any potential modifications or repeals later in the year.

“Obviously, we are in the midst of an unprecedented pandemic and the Board of Public Health is incredibly busy with that, but they’re also recognizing that racism is a public health crisis,” said Gyncild. “There are several things on their plate that fall under racism and we would expect for the helmet law to fall under that category. What we are asking for is for them to take a thoughtful process to reevaluate this law, the effects of the law, what the goals of this law are, and we want them to explore alternatives for how to meet that goal.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been corrected after Ethan Campbell of Central Seattle Greenways alerted the Emerald that some of the statistics he provided on citations for violations affecting Black cyclists were slightly incorrect, including the figure for the percentage of Black cyclists cited for King County’s bicycle helmet law. The original version of the article said this figure was 19.4%, but the correct number is 17.3% percent; in addition, Black cyclists received citations from Seattle police at three to four times the rate of white cyclists — not four times, as the article previously stated. 

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured photo by Susan Fried.

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