by Ethan C. Campbell, Vicky Clarke, and Tiffani McCoy
Last month, the Seattle Police Department ended traffic stops related to four minor violations, including not wearing a bicycle helmet. As advocates for bicyclists, safer streets, and those who are unhoused, we applaud this move to limit unnecessary police interactions in Seattle. Now, we call on the King County Board of Health to end harmful patterns of enforcement once and for all by repealing the countywide helmet law in the vote scheduled for their meeting this Thursday, Feb. 17.
In Seattle, our group found that police have issued Black bicyclists helmet citations at nearly four times the rate of white bicyclists. Hispanic and Indigenous riders have also been ticketed disproportionately. About half of all tickets, which cost at least $100, including court fees, are issued to homeless riders. Disparities this extreme are strongly suggestive of biased enforcement.
These interactions with police pose a safety risk that is not just theoretical. In nearby Tacoma, for example, 15-year-old Monique Tillman was stopped with her brother while bicycling in 2014 by a police officer who grabbed her hair, threw her to the ground, and tased her. Around the country, bicyclists of color have suffered excessive use of force or, worse, tragic deaths at the hands of police.
Research shows even police stops that don’t end in physical violence can be damaging. Our community survey and outreach have found community members have felt harassed, singled out, and intimidated during these interactions. One Woman of Color shared that she was pulled over while riding a bike share, which does not provide helmets. While she and her friends had felt excited biking around the city, the encounter with police led to fear, trauma, and disappointment. Those who have opposed repeal of the law offer no real solution for preventing these harms. We think the solution is obvious: Armed officers should not be involved in enforcing helmet use.
The fact is that King County is an anomaly, as the largest jurisdiction in the U.S. with an all-ages bicycle helmet mandate. It was put in place in 1993 with good intentions: to prevent head injuries by increasing helmet use. Three decades later, the latter goal has largely been achieved, but this is likely owed more to effective education campaigns and shifted norms than the law itself. In Seattle, helmet use among those riding personal bikes is estimated to be around 91%. In Portland, which has never had an all-ages helmet mandate, the most recent count found helmet use to be marginally lower, at 81%.
Of course, wearing a helmet reduces one’s risk of head injury. That’s why organizations like Cascade Bicycle Club require them for all rides and education classes — and will continue to do so even without a helmet law. Despite widespread helmet use, however, people who bike continue to be injured and killed on our streets. Recent large-population studies show that helmet laws today contribute minimally to lowering rates of head injury among bicyclists. What is needed instead is greater investment in safer, separated infrastructure and traffic calming, which demonstrably improve safety for all road users.
Today, many helmet-related traffic stops have little to do with safety. Our review of Seattle police records estimated that over half of all contacts are so-called “mixed-motive” stops in which a helmet violation offered a pretext to detain someone an officer regarded as suspicious, to question them, and to check for warrants. The helmet law was never intended as a means to conduct such “fishing expeditions,” a use that harms community trust in police. We reported this alarming finding to Seattle’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) during deliberations that led to the OIG’s recent recommendation that helmet stops be discontinued.
The Seattle Police Department’s subsequent deprioritization of helmet stops, while commendable, is no substitute for repealing the law. For one, it’s not permanent. And it only applies to Seattle. Disparate enforcement occurs throughout the county; we found that Black bicyclists are disproportionately cited in 8 of the 11 King County cities with sufficient court records to assess disparities. Further, the deprioritization doesn’t prevent enforcement of the helmet law as a secondary offense, or ticketing after a crash, as occurred in an appalling 2019 case in which a homeless newspaper vendor was punitively cited after being injured in a hit-and-run collision.
Repeal of the countywide helmet law — as well as the municipal helmet requirements that cover one-third of King County’s population — is the only way to definitively end these patterns of enforcement. Joining our three organizations’ call for repeal are 20 other local and national groups, including the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), the Association of Pedestrian and Bicycle Professionals (APBP), and the League of American Bicyclists. The King County Board of Health has rightfully declared that racism is a public health crisis. As advocates for the safety of all people who bike, which must include safety from injury as well as safety from inequitable policing, we urge the Board of Health to repeal the helmet law.
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Ethan C. Campbell is a safe streets advocate with Central Seattle Greenways, part of the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways coalition. Separately, he is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington.
Vicky Clarke is the policy director for Cascade Bicycle Club and Washington Bikes, and is a graduate of the Evans School of Public Policy at the University of Washington.
Tiffani McCoy is advocacy director at Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project.
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