Do no harm: King County Board of Health repeals unfairly 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 has voted to repeal a law requiring helmets due to disproportionate enforcement against members of the BIPOC community and homeless people.

The only ‘no’ was King County council member Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who initially brought the matter to the board of health. The repeal was also opposed by doctors and other voters whose family members had suffered head trauma.

Kohl-Welles raised concerns about the impact of outright repeal, especially for young people, and argued for a one-year hiatus to conduct a public awareness campaign.

“But you’re by God going to do this,” Kohl-Welles said. At other times in her testimony, Kohl-Welles said members of the BIPOC community and homeless people were also more likely to have bicycle accidents.

The majority of the council, however, decided that the law should be removed.

“The question before us is whether a helmet law enforced by the police produces results that outweigh the harm caused by the law,” said County Council Member Girmay Zahilay. King.

In November 2020, a viral video of Seattle police officers mocking a Real Change supplier sparked a conversation around helmet quotes. The salesman was riding his bike 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, the police stood there laughing and mocking the injured man. The play that particularly sparked outrage from viewers was when an officer suggested giving the man a citation for not wearing a helmet.

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

Kohl-Welles said she initially raised the issue with the board because of the Crossover story 2020 which found that at least 43% of headset citations had been attributed to people experiencing homelessness since 2017. Looking at data from 2019, that number jumped to 60%, according to the article.

Additionally, an analysis of Seattle City Court data by a doctoral student Ethan C. Campbell showed that black and Native American cyclists received helmet citations disproportionately.

Although Kohl-Welles was originally the one who proposed the repeal to the board, she had advocated pushing back the decision.

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

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

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

“Wearing a helmet reduces the risk of serious brain damage by 88%,” Rivara said.

Although there has been some backlash from the medical community, both parties can agree that action needs to be taken to address the unfair enforcement of helmet citations.

“Not involving law enforcement directly is really important,” Kohl-Welles said ahead of the vote.

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

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

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

“That’s a positive,” Kohl-Welles said. “I’m glad the SPD did what they did.”

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

“It’s important to remember that this guideline is not permanent,” Campbell said. “It could be undone.”

The situation with the seller Real Change could have arisen with agents who are still able to quote cyclists, and the rule only applies to Seattle when the newly repealed helmet law was the rule throughout the Kings County.

The helmet law was originally helpful 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 now suggest that helmet laws are not effective in reducing injury rates to the head among cyclists.”

Seattle still has helmet usage rates similar to cities like Portland, which has never had a helmet law for all ages.

“The law succeeded in achieving its goal,” Campbell said. “Now that he’s achieved that, it’s no longer necessary.”

Rivara agrees the law was more successful in its proposal and said the main way to encourage people to wear helmets was through education.

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

In terms of education and access to free headsets, all parties can get along. Council member Kohl-Welles, as budget chair, included a new helmet distribution program and a bike safety proposal.

This new program will allocate $213,456 towards a new bicycle safety planner position, education outreach and accessible helmet distribution in King County.

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

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


Sarah Goh is a Seattle-based journalist.

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

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