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Washington state's King County decriminalizes helmet violations

Published February 18, 2022

SEATTLE (BRAIN) — The King County Board of Health repealed a 29-year-old mandatory bike helmet law Thursday, citing evidence of racial and anti-homeless bias in its enforcement.

Seattle has enforced the law since 2003, and the Cascade Bicycle Club originally advocated for the law until research put forth by Central Seattle Greenways' Ethan Campbell changed the organization's position. Cascade testified in favor of the repeal as part of a coalition of community organizations, including Real Change and Central Seattle Greenways.

Campbell's data showed Seattle's Black cyclists were ticketed at a rate nearly four times greater than white cyclists. News outlet Crosscut revealed that nearly half of Seattle's helmet tickets went to homeless people.

According to the Cascade Bicycle Club — which urges all cyclists who can afford a helmet to wear one and offers free and low-cost helmets to the public — no conclusive data exists showing that bicycling is safer in cities with helmet laws. Studies show that helmet use can be high even in cities without helmet laws. In Portland, for example, 81% use helmets even though there is no all-ages law, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation.

"Cascade is 100% pro-helmet, but the data is clear; this law was harming vulnerable populations," said Lee Lambert, executive director of Cascade Bicycle Club and its sister organization Washington Bikes. "A majority of riders in King County already wear helmets, but it's people who can't afford one that are being targeted for enforcement, and that's not just or right."

Cascade requires helmets on its group rides, provides them free of charge to kids in its programs, and sells helmets for $10 to anyone.

"Safety is the goal," said Vicky Clarke, Cascade and Washington Bikes policy director. "Government can and should do more to ensure universal access to helmets, but the way we build and rebuild our streets is far more important to the safety of people bicycling than helmet use.

"We call on public officials who care about preventing death and injury to people biking and walking to reduce street speeds, build separated bike infrastructure, and fund connected trails."

Cascade Bicycle Club addressed the repeal of the law in this blog post.

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