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Cycling groups call for an end to helmet laws after a study showed inequity of enforcement

Published February 23, 2021
In the Seattle area, Black people, who make up 8% of the population, received 17% of the tickets.

SEATTLE (BRAIN) — With a new study showing Seattle police have ticketed Black riders not wearing helmets nearly four times the rate as white riders since 2003, multiple advocacy groups are working to decriminalize helmet use in the city and in King County.

The Cascade Bicycle Club, which previously supported the law, and sister organization Washington Bikes are part of the King County Helmet Law Working Group. The Working Group is gathering data and community input to have the King County Board of Health review and potentially repeal the law, adopted in 1993. A spokesperson for Cascade told BRAIN there will be a public process to review the law.

Black people make up about 8% of Seattle's population; yet, they received more than 17% of the helmet violations from 2003-2020, according to the Working Group's study, which reviewed Seattle Municipal Court data on 1,667 helmet infractions. Furthermore, Blacks make fewer than 5% of the bicycle trips in Seattle, according to the study.

In addition, one report shows nearly half of Seattle's helmet tickets were issued to the homeless. Cascade and Washington Bikes say racial disparities are not only an issue in Seattle but nationwide. Beyond racial profiling, mandatory helmet laws discourage bicycle use, especially by people who can't afford a helmet, the advocacy groups say.

Of the 2,962 total bicycle infractions from 2003-2020, 56% were for not wearing a helmet, according to the study.

The study was completed by Ethan Campbell, a 26-year-old University of Washington Ph.D. student who became involved last summer after joining other cyclists to support the Black Lives Matter protests.

Journalists and advocates have found similar patterns in other cities, such as in Tampa, Dallas, and Chicago

The Cascade spokesperson told BRAIN the effort to review helmet data and collect community input gained momentum after a Black bicyclist in Los Angeles was stopped in September for riding down the wrong side of a road, which led to a confrontation with police and ended with the man fatally shot. Another impetus was nearby Tacoma, Washington, repealing its helmet law last year.

Those who want to comment on their experiences with police enforcement of bike infractions in King County are being asked to fill out an anonymous survey.

The King County Board of Health helmet law calls for any cyclists not wearing a helmet to be fined $30 for each violation, not including applicable court costs. The fine can be waived in lieu of community service hours.

The Helmet Law Working Group was formed last summer by the Central Seattle Greenways, the Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Coalition, Real Change, and other transportation and equity-focused groups in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, focusing on racism in policing. Cascade and Washington Bikes joined as part of their Commitment to Anti-Racism initiative with support from the Board of Directors.

While Cascade and Washington Bikes support decriminalizing helmet use, they advocate for voluntary use. But safer street infrastructure — protected bike lanes and lower speed limits — do more to prevent cycling deaths, they say.

The Cascade spokesperson said it has received positive and negative feedback to its initiative, with criticism coming from the mistaken belief that it is against helmet use.

"Some individuals think that we are now opposed to helmets and no longer encourage people to wear them. That is 100% inaccurate. Cascade encourages everyone who owns a helmet to wear one when riding a bike, and we require them to participate in our rides and events, and we supply them for free to youths who participate in our programming. So, we are not anti-helmet. The bumper sticker would be: 'Helmets Yes. Helmet Laws No.'"

Topics associated with this article: DEI and Sustainability

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