King County is debating a repeal of its bike helmet law due to data that shows it is unequally enforced in communities of color and among unhoused individuals.
The King County Board of Health held a public hearing Thursday about repealing the law, which requires all bicyclists to wear a helmet.
According to the proposed resolution in support of repealing the law, data shows that cyclists of color receive tickets more frequently than white cyclists under the current helmet regulation, and that it is a common reason for law enforcement to engage with unhoused people.
Ultimately, the board decided to delay a vote on the repeal until at least late November in order to get more information and allow for further discussion from relevant stakeholders.
The vote Thursday would have involved a proposed repeal of the helmet regulations, and a resolution that affirms the board’s position that helmets save lives and can prevent head and brain injuries.
“This is not a conversation about the value of helmets,” King County Councilmember Joe McDermott said. “We know helmets save lives.”
Echoing McDermott’s statement and the affirmation in the resolution, it was made clear during public comment that the question is not whether to wear a helmet or if a helmet provides additional safety, but rather that the law is unequally enforced.
Multiple commenters spoke against a repeal of the helmet law, emphasizing that traumatic brain injuries (TBI) are very common in accidents when people don’t wear a helmet. Speakers included parents of children with TBI, attorneys representing people with TBI, as well as doctors and public health officials.
“We’re asking for a delay so we have more dialogue to come up with a real solution,” one commenter said. “Helmet laws prevent traumatic brain injury — it’s that simple.”
A commenter whose husband suffered a TBI that could have been much worse had he not been wearing a helmet, pointed out that while some people choose to wear helmets — and would always choose to wear helmets — that’s not universal. This person said a law like what is on the books is a sure way to get more people to wear a helmet while biking.
Others argued the helmet law hasn’t actually changed whether or not people wear helmets, and does more harm to marginalized communities due to the unequal enforcement.
“The helmet law is not serving its purpose. For one, it’s minimally enforced at the discretion of police officers,” said one commenter who supports the repeal.
This person added that when it is enforced, records from police show that it’s predominately used as a pretext to ask someone questions, run their ID, check for warrants, or other things that are not related the helmet regulation, “not good faith, public education.”
“As long as the law remains on the books, police will continue to misuse it in this way,” they said.
UW Medicine’s Dr. Monica Vavilala noted in public comment that if the helmet law is repealed, “BIPOC communities will be more adversely effected because TBI is disproportionally represented in BIPOC communities. More Black and brown children and adults will die.”
“I know that preventing TBI is way more effective than treating TBI,” Vavilala said.
She says part of her work is to reduce the TBI burden in the region through a health equity lens, and she knows helmet enforcement is inequitable.
“You may wonder, how do I reconcile my pro-helmet, anti-brain injury, and anti-racist views into a constructive path forward? How can my comments help the board of health today? As an immediate step, I would humbly request the board of health urgently commission a third party to conduct a diverse, stakeholder engaged, and data-driven assessment of the genesis, current state, and impact of repealing the helmet law, with two outcomes in mind: safety and equity,” she suggested. “This work then would inform the intermediate and long-term goals and upstream strategies and tactics needed.”
Dr. Vivilala supported delaying the vote.
Seventeen jurisdictions within King County have their own helmet laws, and any change to the helmet requirement from the county board of health would not impact the regulations in those jurisdictions.
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