Photo depicting a group of cyclists riding down a bike lane on a downtown street.

Do No Harm: King County Board of Health Repeals Inequitably Enforced Bicycle Helmet Law

by Sarah Goh

(This article originally appeared on Real Change News and has been reprinted with permission.)

The King County Board of Health voted to repeal a law requiring helmets because of the disproportional enforcement against BIPOC community members and people experiencing homelessness.

The sole “no” vote was King County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who initially brought the issue to the Board of Health. The repeal was also opposed by doctors and other constituents with family members who had experienced traumatic brain injury.

Kohl-Welles raised concerns about what the outright repeal would do, especially for young people, and argued for a yearlong pause in order to conduct a public awareness campaign.

“But you’re going to by god do this,” Kohl-Welles said. At other points in her testimony, Kohl-Welles said that BIPOC community members and people experiencing homelessness were also more likely to experience bicycle accidents.

The majority of the board, however, decided that the law should go.

“The question before us is whether a helmet law that is enforced by police on balance produces results that outweigh the harm that the law creates,” said King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay.

In November 2020, a viral video of Seattle Police officers mocking a Real Change vendor sparked conversation around helmet citations. The vendor was riding a bicycle in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood when he was suddenly hit by a driver in a hit-and-run collision. 

As the vendor lay on the road in serious need of medical attention, police officers stood around laughing and mocking the injured man. The piece that especially ignited outrage from viewers was when one officer suggested giving the man a citation for not wearing a helmet.

Since that winter, groups around Seattle have rallied for the King County Board of Health to repeal the helmet law. The vote was set to take place in October 2021, but with opposition from the medical community, it was pushed to February. 

Kohl-Welles said she originally brought the issue to the board because of the 2020 Crosscut story that revealed at least 43% of helmet citations were given to people struggling with homelessness since 2017. Looking at the data from 2019 on, that number increased to 60%, according to the article.

In addition, an analysis of the Seattle Municipal Court data by doctoral student Ethan C. Campbell showed that Black and Native American bike riders have been disproportionately given helmet citations.

Although Kohl-Welles was originally the one to bring the repeal to the board, she had been advocating to push the decision back. 

“I’m not ready to vote to repeal the law,” she said before the vote. “We’ve got to look at multiple components in addressing this really important issue.” 

Kohl-Welles said that after meeting with members of the medical community, she was concerned about the message that will be sent out if the law is repealed. 

That concern is born out by data, said Dr. Frederick P. Rivara, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington. 

“Helmet use decreases the risk of serious brain injury by 88%,” Rivara said.

Though there had been pushback from the medical community, both sides can agree that steps need to be taken to address the inequitable enforcement of helmet citations.

“Not having law enforcement involved directly is really important,” Kohl-Welles said before the vote.

Law enforcement can create a very stressful environment for a lot of marginalized people. Plans to reduce police involvement can be embraced by both sides, Campbell said.

“The goal we all share is to remove police from the equation,” Campbell said. “We don’t think they need to be involved in this.” 

This unanimous agreement has prompted the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to deprioritize helmet citations. Police officers will no longer use helmet citations as a primary reason to make a stop. 

“This is a positive,” Kohl-Welles said. “I’m glad SPD did what it did.”

Even with this new SPD ruling in place, Campbell said that Central Seattle Greenways and others were still hoping for full or partial repeal of the law. 

“It’s important to remember this directive is not permanent,” Campbell said. “It could be rescinded.”

The situation with the Real Change vendor could still have happened with officers who are still able to cite cyclists, and the rule only applies to Seattle while the newly repealed helmet law was the rule in all of King County.

The helmet law was originally useful in that it dramatically increased helmet use, Campbell said.

“But we’re in a different time now,” Campbell said, “Research has changed … large population studies today suggest that helmet laws are not effective at lowering rates of head injuries for cyclists.”

Seattle still has similar helmet-use rates compared to cities like Portland, which has never had an all-ages helmet law on the books. 

“The law has been successful in achieving its goal,” Campbell said. “Now that it has achieved that goal, it’s not needed.” 

Rivara agrees that the law was more successful back in its proposal and said the primary way for encouraging people to wear helmets has been education. 

“The law was probably more effective when a lot of people didn’t wear helmets,” Rivara said. “Overall, education has been important and effective in getting the message about helmets out.”

In terms of education and having access to free helmets, all parties can agree. Councilmember Kohl-Welles, as the budget chair, has included a new helmet distribution program and bicycle safety proposal.

This new program will allocate $213,456 to a new position of a bicycle safety planner, spreading education, and accessible distribution of helmets across King County. 

The safety planner will work on the distribution of helmets without law enforcement and overall bicycle safety. They will work with local organizations to promote education and encourage communities to get involved with bicycle safety. 

Kohl-Welles said that they hope to fill the new safety planner position in February or March.

Sarah Goh is a Seattle-based journalist.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Jeanne Clark/SDOT Photos (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0 license).

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