King County repeals bike helmet law over evidence of racist and discriminatory enforcement

Board of Health still encourages helmet use, but citatations will no longer be issued

The King County Board of Health on Feb. 17 voted 11-2 to repeal the county’s helmet law after research had shown racist and discriminatory enforcement of this law that disproportionately targeted people of color and people experiencing homelessness.

The vote will remove the helmet use requirement from King County’s Board of Health code, ending citations for failure to wear a helmet.

“Everyone should wear a helmet while riding. But enforcement of the helmet law has harmed BIPOC riders and riders experiencing homelessness who are bearing the brunt of disproportionate enforcement, citations and fees,” said Board Chair Joe McDermott. “We can and will improve safety and eliminate disparate enforcement of this law at the same time by making helmets easier to get, through public education on their use, and encouraging other safe practices without relying on law enforcement.”

McDermott said this policy change is directly in line with the Board of Health’s declaration in 2020 that racism is a public health crisis and commitment to support policies that address racism.

The Board began looking into the issue after reports in 2020 indicated that a disproportionate number of citations were being issued to people of color and people experiencing homelessness. Further research confirmed this data. According to the county, Black cyclists were 3.8 times more likely to be issued a helmet citation and, since 2019, 60% of citations for helmets have gone to people experiencing homelessness.

In January, the Seattle Police Department deprioritized enforcement of bicycle helmet laws along with several other traffic infractions.

The Board also approved a resolution emphasizing the importance of helmet use for bikes, scooters and other similar vehicles.

A statement from the board claims the governing body will work to ensure helmets are accessible for all riders throughout the county and continue to promote their use to reduce the risk of injury. The King County Council allocated $221,000 in the supplemental budget passed in November 2021 to distribute helmets, focused on providing them to unhoused individuals and individuals who historically have been disproportionately impacted by inequities and discrimination.

“As a former ER doctor who has treated people with preventable head injuries, I also know the importance of wearing a bike helmet,” Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “And as Health Officer, I appreciate that community partners have highlighted the negative impacts of discriminatory enforcement of the helmet law. The bottom line is that Public Health continues to strongly recommend and encourage helmet use, especially by children.”

The Cascade Bicycle Club issued a statement applauding the council’s decision. The 52-year-old organization testified in favor of the repeal as part of a coalition of community organizations including Real Change and Central Seattle Greenways.

“Cascade is 100 percent 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.”

It is worth noting that seventeen cities in the county have their own bicycle helmet mandate including Auburn, Bellevue, Black Diamond, Burien, Des Moines, Duvall, Enumclaw, Federal Way, Issaquah, Kent, Lake Forest Park, Maple Valley, North Bend, Pacific, Renton, SeaTac and Snoqualmie.