King County bike helmet law is unevenly enforced

King County bike helmet law is unevenly enforced
A Seattle bike share customer riding without a helmet.

With so many people trying Seattle’s new bike share rides, a question emerges: Where are the helmets?

Bicycle riders of all ages have been required to wear helmets since 2003 in King County. But it’s unlikely that riders in Seattle will be ticketed for failing to wear them.

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According to a statement from the Seattle Police Department, police do not currently favor enforcement:

Our department enforces a number of road and traffic safety regulations, with an emphasis on education over enforcement. Officers always have the discretion to write a citation or explain the laws and importance of road safety and provide a warning.

That doesn't mean a Seattle police officer won't write a ticket. Like SPD says, cops have discretion and they do issue citations. But looking at the number of tickets that SPD has issued in the past few years, there is a considerable downward trend; going from 607 tickets in 2011 to just 41 in 2016. The city is on track to issue even less in 2017.

Some cycling advocates promote that King County's helmet law should go away; that it should not be required so bike shares can more easily operate. Still, the bike share apps will remind you of the law when you use them. Limebike has even run a special helmet giveaway. Seattle's failed bike share program, Pronto, provided helmets.

However, it seems that bike share customers have coasted into a time when it is less likely to get a ticket for not wearing a bike helmet. While the option is there for police, the numbers show it has become less common.

Tickets for bike helmets in other cities

I asked other major King County cities how many tickets they’ve issued for bike helmet violations over the past couple of years.

Issaquah and Redmond had no records of any citations. Mercer Island had no tickets going back to 2007. Bothell, which straddles King and Snohomish counties, doesn’t even enforce the county’s helmet law, according to a City of Bothell representative.

Bellevue, Kent, and Renton, however, have issued tickets in recent years. Kent has issued far more bike helmet tickets than any other city in King County — outside of Seattle — since 2015. Even more than the King County Sheriff’s Office.

King County deputies not only patrol the county but also provide police services to a variety of cities such as Shoreline or Maple Valley. The number of tickets issued for bike helmet violations over the past couple years is pretty even, though spread across various cities. Tickets for bike helmet violations have been issued more steadily in Maple Valley, Kenmore, and greater King County.