Sophie Kasakove, New York Times, February 18, 2022
In Seattle, home to one of the largest populations of bike commuters in the country, officials have overturned a decades-old regulation requiring cyclists to wear helmets because of what they called discriminatory enforcement of the rule against homeless people and people of color.
The King County Board of Health voted to repeal the requirement on Thursday, with only one member opposing the decision to roll back a measure that even critics acknowledge has saved lives.
Seattle is the largest city in the country to enforce a bike helmet requirement. The city of Tacoma, Wash., repealed its requirement in 2020, citing similar equity concerns, as did Dallas in 2014 for those 18 and older, as a means of encouraging more bike-sharing.
In a county that has made racial justice reform a priority — the King County health board declared racism a public health crisis in 2020 — the regulation pitted the need to address racial equity against the obvious safety benefits of helmets.
The board of health, made up of elected officials and appointed medical experts from across the county, began to scrutinize the helmet rule in 2020 after an analysis of court records from Crosscut, a local news site, showed that it was rarely enforced, and enforced disproportionately when it was. Since 2017, Seattle police had given just 117 helmet citations, over 40 percent of which went to people who were homeless. Since 2019, 60 percent of citations went to people who were homeless.
A separate analysis from Central Seattle Greenways, a safe streets advocacy group, found that Black cyclists were almost four times as likely to receive a citation for violating the helmet requirement as white cyclists. Native American cyclists were just over twice as likely to receive one as white cyclists.
Neither study looked at whether homeless people or people of color wore helmets less frequently than other groups, but the Central Seattle Greenways study did look at racial demographics of cyclists and found that people of color were less likely to ride bikes than white people.
“It was a law that really just allowed the Police Department, the Seattle Police Department, to harass Black and brown community members,” said K.L. Shannon, an organizer for Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and police accountability chair for the Seattle King County chapter of the N.A.A.C.P.
In an incident in 2016, a Black man was stopped by the Seattle police for riding a bike with no helmet. In a dashcam video of the tense, 19-minute stop, one officer shared with another that the suspect “matches the description of a burglary suspect,” suggesting that the helmet regulation was used as a pretense.
Last month, the department announced that it would no longer use bicycle helmet infractions — along with a few other low-risk safety violations — as primary reasons for a traffic stop.
Opponents of the repeal have warned that it could have serious safety consequences.
“No helmets means more death and more serious injury,” said Richard Adler, a lawyer who works with clients who have suffered brain injuries. “Access to helmets is already an issue, and repealing this disincentivizes everybody to not wear their helmet over time.”
Across the country, other kinds of biking regulations have also been found to be enforced in discriminatory ways.
In Chicago, a study found that tickets were issued to cyclists eight times more often in majority-Black parts of the city. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice found that 73 percent of bicycle stops in Tampa, Fla., between 2014 and 2015 involved Black cyclists, despite the fact that Black people made up 26 percent of the population.