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King County repeals bike helmet law, but all sides still agree: wear your helmet

caption: Helmeted bicyclists
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Helmeted bicyclists
Cascade Bicycle Club

King County's Board of Health voted Thursday to repeal its helmet law that required bike riders to wear helmets or face $30 fine, and additional court fees.

Recently, researchers have found that people of color and those living homeless are disproportionately ticketed. That equity concern runs into the worry that a repeal could lead to more head injuries. While the decision to wear a bike helmet is now up to individual riders, all sides of the repeal debate still agree on one thing: wear your helmet.

Kim Malcolm spoke to KUOW investigative fellow Gracie Todd about her reporting on the bike helmet law and who it’s impacting.

This interview has been edited for clarity. It was conducted before the vote on Thursday, Feb. 18 that approved the repeal of King County's helmet law.

Gracie Todd: Enforcement of this law is following broader trends of over-policing, targeted toward non-white and especially black people. Ethan Campbell, on behalf of Central Seattle Greenways, completed an analysis and gave us some insight on this. He used data from 2003-2020, revealing that Black bicyclists in Seattle are cited for breaking the helmet law at a rate nearly four times higher than white cyclists. Indigenous and Hispanic or Latino cyclists are also disproportionately targeted by enforcement of this law.

Kim Malcolm: There are quite a few advocates for cycling who are also in favor of repealing the helmet law, even though they believe in helmets. What are they saying about it?

Broadly, local bicycle advocates do want to see this law repealed. They say helmets are great, but this helmet law is not, and that there are many more effective measures to encourage people to wear helmets without the other harmful effects.

Ethan Campbell is also a safe streets and bicycle advocate. Here's how he defines the debate: “Absolutely no one is saying that bicyclists should not wear helmets. We know helmets are powerfully protective against injuries in crashes, and no one's disputing that. What the debate is about is whether criminalization and using the police as a tool to enforce helmet use is the right approach to get helmets on heads.”

Advocates and some board members really want to look at this safety issue more broadly. They say that people should definitely wear helmets because they're a crucial last line of defense, but things like protected bike lanes and measures to calm vehicle traffic so that it moves slower provide the first line of defense, and can prevent situations where helmets do become lifesavers.

Then there's the medical side of this issue. What are doctors saying about this?

They agree people should wear helmets, and it's important to encourage helmet use. It’s controversial within the medical community whether the law is necessary to do that, or even effective to get people to wear helmets. I spoke with Steve Mooney, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington. He said that, based on what he's been hearing, medical professionals focused on the structural factors in public health tend to think that harm caused by the law is outweighing the benefits, if there are any.

Professionals who work with head trauma patients directly tend to oppose repealing the law. Beth Ebel is the director of the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center. She told KUOW she's concerned about inequitable enforcement, but also concerned that a repeal would lead to more head injuries:

“I work at the Trauma Center at Harborview, so I take care of folks when things have not gone well. We can fix broken arms and broken legs, broken collarbones, but when your brain is injured, it is a real challenge. All we can do is suck stuff out and try to prevent additional injury, and so we fight really hard for this one measure that cyclists can do to prevent injury to themselves.”

It sounds like the King County Board of Health is poised to make a decision on this. What do we know where they stand on this issue?

*Shortly after this interview, the King County Board of Health voted in favor of repealing the helmet law.

They're almost definitely going to take a vote, and almost definitely going to vote to repeal, based on what I've been hearing. The board passed a resolution in 2020 stating that racism is a public health issue, and committed to reviewing how the laws and policies it has enacted have contributed to or suppressed racial justice and equity.

Here's Lisa Herbold, a member of the King County Board of Health, and a Seattle City Council member: “The question isn't whether helmets save lives and prevent serious injuries. We know that they do. The question is: What is the best way to increase helmet use while doing the least harm? We have a lot of data that shows that BIPOC communities suffer from disproportionate policing of helmet use locally, and by repealing the helmet law mandate, while also investing in distributing helmets, in educating people on bike safety, this is really a better way forward.”

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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