“Bicycle helmets are racist now” — this is the headline you’re about to see on Fox, or wherever gullible chumps get their news these days.
Tomorrow evening, Seattle’s Bike Advisory council will discuss possible reforms to our bike helmet laws in an attempt to address racial disparities, and I can already see the conservative faux-outrage: “Now the woke PC mob is coming for bike helmets,” Republicans will complain, shaking their heads and declaring that from now on they’re going to wear bike helmets EVERYWHERE they go, just to make the liberals quiver. That’ll show us.
But here’s the thing … bike helmet law enforcement is racist.
The numbers have been crunched, repeatedly, by Crosscut and the University of Washington and Central Seattle Greenways and so on, and so on, and so on. The results are always the same: Mandatory bike helmet requirements are hurting people, because they're disproportionately used to discriminate against people of color and people experiencing homelessness.
Police are four times more likely to cite Black cyclists than white cyclists, according to research by UW doctoral student Ethan C. Campbell. Cops are twice as likely to cite Indigenous people, and one-tenth as likely to cite Asian cyclists. If you can think of a word for this other than “racist,” I’d love to hear it.
On top of that, nearly half of citations go to people experiencing homelessness. Nearly half!!!
King County has required helmets for all cyclists since 1993, and Seattle’s required them since 2003. And on the surface, this seems like a good thing: A handful of people die in bike collisions every year, and if helmets would prevent those deaths, shouldn’t they be required?
Wellllll, maybe. Several times more people die in car crashes every year; why don’t you need a helmet to get in a car? And while helmets can indeed reduce injuries, some research shows that drivers engage in riskier behavior when they see a cyclist with a helmet. You might expect to see that countries with high helmet usage have lower head injuries, but that’s not the case. Helmets are expensive, and some communities see helmet laws as a barrier to riding.
“We discovered that there was, in fact, not only racial disparity in terms of the actual citations, but the citations are the tip of the iceberg,” says Brie Gyncild with Central Seattle Greenways. Her organization has partnered with other local groups like Real Change and Cascade Bicycle Club to form an advisory group that is reviewing Seattle’s (failed!) helmet law; they’re currently collecting public input via a survey here, and they’re working on a suite of recommendations that can be considered by the Bike Advisory Council and the Board of Public Health.
Eliminating racist enforcement is a top priority for the Helmet Law Working Group — not just because of the citations, but because the threat of enforcement may prevent people from getting on a bike in the first place. “There are a lot of interactions that don’t involve citations, but involve harassment,” Gyncild says. “We believe there are alternative ways to promote helmet use that don’t involve someone with a gun.”
Gyncild suggests education campaigns, helmet fittings, and rebates would be more effective and less racist. Seattle already offers subsidies to offset the cost of car ownership and provides electric car charging stations; the state of Washington already offers rebates for less-polluting cars.
So to sum things up: Helmets can be good, sometimes, but they don’t help as much as you might think, and they can make other problems worse. So what is an effective way to keep everybody safe? We’ve known the answer to that for decades: You just need to design streets to be safe, livable, and shareable.
Countries that prioritize streets for everyone, not just cars, have much lower fatalities than the US. Get rid of 30-mile-an-hour deathtraps, replace them with neighborhoods where your destinations and transit connections are close (that means eliminating racist one-home zoning), build comfortable lanes for bikes and scooters, and voilà — you’ve saved way more lives than helmets can. (You've also improved public health, increasing the housing supply, and eliminated sources of pollution, all of which seem like they might be positive outcomes!)
King County has declared racism to be a public health crisis. It’s good that they did that. Racism, and I’m talking about those little day-to-day behaviors that enforce centuries-old imbalances in power, IS a public health crisis.
Here are some more crises: Premature death caused by air pollution due to our dependence on cars and highways (which disproportionately impacts communities of color), and loss of earning opportunities caused by a lack of access to cheap, reliable transportation (you know, bikes).
If we really cared about saving lives, we’d fix the streets instead of shifting the burden of reducing fatalities onto riders.
Bike helmets are good, but requiring them is bad. Bike helmet laws need to go.