Seattle's Bike Helmet Law Is a Racist Failure



Have they considered just wearing a helmet?


Helmets are smart. Helmet laws are dumb.


Thanks for sharing this information. Disproportionate impact is an analysis that should be done for any policy, of any type. And not just by race.


Take this analysis to its logical conclusion, and any policy that requires an expenditure by the public is racist so long as wealth is disproportionately distributed by race. Does that mean such policies should always be eschewed? Where is the line?


By the way, the legal theory on which these laws are passed relates to the public welfare clause of constitution. The policy imperative flows from the reality that 35 percent of the public receives public health insurance, meaning you and I pay when others crack open their skulls and need a lifetime of assisted living. It's as much about saving money as it is saving lives.


I think DOUG is right that helmets are smart. I have responded to many incidents involving cyclists in Seattle. Anecdotal evidence but I am convinced.


Amazon has ‘em for $12. If people truly can’t afford $12, then have the City hand them out if they catch people without them. Brain injuries don’t care who you are.


The inferior social classes have little regard for there own wretched lives, as they demonstrate in myriad ways. Ask yourself, who, mostly, smokes cigarettes, drinks soda pop, etc? Is it rich people? Not usually. It is only through the constant threat of punishment that the poor can be made to conform to the most basic social norms.


Is this a solution in search of a problem? Simply wearing a helmet will prevent anyone from one being cited regardless of race. In addition, anyone who can afford a bike can afford a helmet.


From Campbell's analysis:
"One possibility is that rates of helmet law noncompliance ...are higher among Black cyclists ... and thus the difference reflects equitable enforcement practices."

The remainder of the analysis, far as I can tell, is devoted to the non-equitable enforcement possibility. (But as @3 notes, limited means are not equitably distributed.)

At least two other explanatory possibilities - above and beyond imperfect data - are not raised at all.

And it seems like a lot of uproar for a total of 7 cases (all races) in the previous calendar year.



So if there were only 7 citations written last year, why even have the law on the books? I've no doubt hundreds (and more likely thousands) of helmet-less excursions take place in the city proper every day. Dumb law, be done with it. And of course DOUG is right on both of his points.


@2 I hope you wear your helmet when you're walking, too. You never know when you could slip and fall, trip over a curb, or be hit by a careless driver as a pedestrian.
@1-8 Completely miss the point that there's no correlation between high helmet usage and fatalities in bike communities around the world. The only things that make cycling safer are more cyclists and better-designed infrastructure. I truly hope the next time someone you love suffers a major head trauma whether they be walking, riding, or more than likely in a car, you cuntily ask them, "Why weren't you wearing a helmet?"


The law itself isn't racist, what the studies show is that the police that enforce this law apply it in a racist manner. Yet another example of how our police force is broken. The law is mostly useless for protecting cyclists from injury so it is unnecessary as a safety tool. But it's abuse by law enforcement officers as another tool to abuse brown people means it should be removed from their toolbox immediately.


@6 - I like the idea of police officers handing out bike helmets instead of tickets...


In light of the fact SPD is on pace to hand out perhaps 2 or 3 helmet citations in 2021 if recent trends hold, retooling helmet laws is perhaps the least effective vehicle for reducing racial disparities I can think of.



The point being made here though isn't so much related to the expenditure imposed on the individual, it's on the discretionary, and likely targeted, enforcement being exercised by the police.


"Police are four times more likely to cite Black cyclists than white cyclists [....] 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."

I can easily think of a non-racist explanation: they are cited at these rates because black cyclists are twice as likely not not wear helmets, Indigenous people are twice as likely, and Asian cyclists are one-tenth as likely as whites.


@12 For extra credit, in what book does Nietzsche argue that almost all high culture is based on cruelty?

Spoiler alert, it's Beyond Good and Evil.

Or if you'd like it put more simply . ..


Remember - it's not about how many people are cited for not wearing a helmet, it's about how many people the cops stop because they aren't wearing a helmet. Most of these interactions don't generate a report or citation, but every one of them creates a potential for harm by police against people of color.

That being said, in my experience cops look for any excuse to harrass bicyclist. King County dupties run speed traps on the Sammamish River Trail (and were doing so before motorized bikes and scooters were as common as they are not), Lake Forrest Park cops cite cyclists on the Burke Gilman for rolling through the crosswalk signal during the countdown phase, and SPD stops cyclits for 'taking the lane' or rolling through stop signs - which are completely legal in WA.

In general, changing the helmet law is in keeping with the overall need to give cops fewer reasons to interact with people who are basically minding their own business and not hurting anyone else.


Yeah all laws are enforced through the lens of white supremacy. Hence why Black people existing are murdered by cops and white supremacist mass shooters are taken alive. This is not news. The so-called justice system in this country is literally unjust in every possible way. This is not news.


@18: "not hurting anyone else."

Perhaps, but still can cause bloody messes for first responders.


Instead of citing anyone, just repeal it with the caveat that if a cyclist suffers a head injury due to their own negligence/reckless riding* - their rehab/vocational rehabilitation, hiring an ass-wiper because they can't grasp how to do it anymore - is on their dime. Cops don't have to engage anyone not wearing a helmet, and the system doesn't pay for the outcome of stupid behavior on the part of the cyclist. Win-win.

*Recently saw a guy dart out of an area of quiet residential streets onto a busy arterial - the wrong way. Like - INTO traffic. Almost shit myself when I saw it the 'accident that could have been' was so damn close. Still makes me shudder and I have avoided the area since then. This is a perfect example of what I mean: no helmet + really dumbass, risky behavior.


@11 - I can think of one crash where I certainly would have had a major head injury if I had not been wearing a helmet and at least one where I probably would have. In the first, I went over the front of the bike, whacked my cheek and nose so hard they took weeks to heal , and split the helmet right up the front. Fortunately, I split the helmet instead of my skull. And I was going maybe 15 miles an hour. Had that been on, say, a downhill in traffic, would have been even more dangerous. There are damn good reasons to wear helmets.

Sounds to me like the issue with the disproportionate impact is police behavior, not the helmet law.


Bicycling is a virtuous form of exercise and transportation, albeit with some risk.

Then again, driving is far, far riskier than taking the train or bus or commercial plane (at least pre-COVID).

Wearing a helmet is smart. It helps ameliorate risk.

Not wearing a helmet is a bad idea. It works against the amelioration of risk. Head injury is ugly. I know people with traumatic brain injury from helmetless impacts. I also know people who died from same.

Helmet laws are a valid idea. They help validate and institutionalize risk reduction--just like seat belt laws and cars.

Racist enforcement of helmet laws is bad policy and bad action by bad actors.

Someone suggested that police hand out helmets instead of tickets. That is a great idea--for those recipients who are amenable. Many will be. Others will not. Tickets can be reserved for those who reject helmets, usually for asinine reasons.

The article repeats several debunked allegations. They do not lead to productive discussion of the issues.


I'd be surprised if you see that headline on Faux, if it is unconstitutional to force people to wear masks then it would be equally so to force helmet use. On the other hand, hypocrisy seems to be the greatest virtue in their eyes, so maybe...

"Countries that prioritize streets for everyone, not just cars, have much lower fatalities than the US." ... from Covid-19.
There are plenty of people who would rather die than give you a bike lane Matt (not to mention let YOU die).
You know what they say; "Better Dead than Red" (I'm glad I live in a Blue state :)


Wouldn't it be less work to point out which policies are not racist?
Everyone can fill in the standard arguments by them/xir/selves.


Anyone who needs a really cheap helmet should check out Goodwill. They have a ton of them for a few bucks.


@9 – Thanks for your interest in my study. However, you have (knowingly?) misrepresented the passage that you quoted by omitting a phrase that my report quite intentionally emphasized using italics. In doing so, you’ve taken the point out of context and distorted its meaning. Here’s the original:

“One possibility is that rates of helmet law noncompliance relative to traffic violations are higher among Black cyclists (relatively more helmet law noncompliance) and lower among Asian/Pacific Islander cyclists (relatively more traffic violations), and thus the difference reflects equitable enforcement practices.”

For more context, this passage is comparing the subcategory of helmet citations to the overall pool of bike-related citations that I analyzed, which is split fairly evenly between traffic violations and helmet citations. See Figure 3 on page 16 of my report if this discussion is unclear. I’d also be happy to clarify by email – my contact info is on the first page.

You’re right that my report doesn’t address the question of inequitable enforcement, besides this short note. The findings show disparate impact, which doesn’t necessarily point to biased policing. However, the data are strongly suggestive of unfair enforcement (read on…).

@16 – The explanation you suggest is something we’ve heard frequently. However, most of the disparities in citation rates cannot be attributed to differences in helmet use rates among different demographics. For example, studies of other locations in the U.S. have found differences in helmet use between Black and white cyclists of just 10-20%. Given that observational surveys have found average helmet use rates in Seattle of around 90%, a 4x Black-white disparity in helmet use would require about a 70% difference in use rates (say, 95% of white cyclists and 25% of Black cyclists wearing helmets, which is about a 4x disparity). That’s starkly different from what the literature suggests for other cities, and so I think it’s unlikely to be the case here. I’m working on a formal analysis along these lines, but suffice it to say we have enough information to suggest that the law is being enforced unfairly by police.

And don’t get me started on the fact that almost half of all citations go to homeless individuals. The math simply can’t work out for that to be a result of fair policing. There are about 8,500 people experiencing homelessness in Seattle. Even if a full quarter of that population rode bikes every day, all without helmets, that could not generate nearly enough helmet-less trips to warrant around half of all citations. All the evidence suggests that this law is not being enforced fairly. (Not to mention the 2 million annual bike share trips in Seattle, 75% of which are helmet-less…)

We know Black cyclists are subject to pretextual (i.e. investigatory) police stops more frequently than white cyclists in other cities. See, for example, this Bicycling Magazine article looking at Washington DC, New Orleans, and Oakland: Our concern (well, one of them) is that the helmet law may be enabling these sorts of stops, rather than serving its intended purpose.

Worth also mentioning that the Seattle Office of Inspector General recently opened an audit into Seattle PD’s helmet citation practices—it’s not just us worried about this.


Did any of those studies measure helmet use in Seattle by race? Or risky behavior on a bicycle by race? If not, you are missing relevant data which might explain the disparity better than your poor assumptions.


If you don't want to wear a helmet, fine with me. Even if helmets were free, some people wouldn't wear them. But you get a traumatic head injury, don't complain.


Year 2011, 607 hundred helmet infractions. Year 2020, 7 infractions. A uniform decline over the same time period. Race and homelessness have nothing to do with it. Seattle has chosen not to enforce the law to promote biking. How about the Mariners did not lose to Chicago 6-0 Monday night. Sure the White Sox scored 6 runs to Seattle’s 0 runs...


"lack of access to cheap, reliable transportation (you know, bikes)"
Who? Who in Seattle lacks access to a bike? There are probably more bikes than people because for every 20 bikes stacked outside a tent, that's 20 more bikes someone had to buy and replace.


I agree, if you are poor enough or the wrong color who cares if you get lifelong brain damage or death. An the bright side, racism must be getting close to complete elimination if this is what we worry about now. Yay!!!!!!!!!


You know what else is racist? Air. Fucking air, man. Get rid of it. And water, too. Will it never end?


Matt Baume, thanks for the article. I'm really of two minds, but I think, finally, I come down on your side. There are better (on the whole) ways to promote helmet-wearing for cycling than mandatory helmet laws.

I always wear a helmet. And I truly believe my helmet saved my life in two serious entanglements with cars, in both cases having landed on my head, and ending in hospitalization and serious injury. I will continue to wear a helmet, and will encourage others to do so.

But encouragement is as far as I'd go. (Well, maybe encouragement plus generous subsidies. Maybe even to the extent of distributing free helmets.) We've all seen, time and again, how an encounter with police over a trivial, selectively enforced, non-offensive "offense" can quickly lead to an outcome like additional financial burden, incarceration, or death for people of color or Indigenous peoples.

Making police stop using helmet laws as a way to police people of color and Indigenous peoples is a monumental task, with many institutional and systemic roadblocks. Until it is done, I believe mandatory helmet laws will, on balance, do more harm than good. And we are wasting time that can be used to explore and effect alternatives.

To wit, I believe one of my automotive entanglements never would have happened if the intersection where it happened (Fremont & Westlake) were not designed like a highway on-ramp. A few months after my incident, another cyclist suffered a serious injury in exactly the same manner, in the same place. SDOT finally took action to tweak the intersection (In my mind, not enough). I'm glad I was wearing a helmet. I would have been gladder yet if I'd never had a car-induced Icarus moment in the first place.

Incidentally, the research on helmets encouraging drivers to take less care is, as far as I've seen from perusing the raw data, thin and shoddy. I wouldn't try to make a case with it.


Yeah. This isn’t Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Wear a god damned helmet.

Sure. I 100% agree it shouldn’t be a law. And ideally the issue would resolve itself with perfect Darwin Award symmetry.

But the problem is the same people too stupid to wear a helmet are also too stupid or poor to be insured so my ass has to pay for them. And they can sue drivers.

Make not wearing a helmet legal with the caveat you’re on own liability wise... then, sure, let’s repeal that dumb law.


Once we pitch these shitty helmet laws lets start knocking down the one's named after your dead white kid. Usually drug laws.


Let's flip the script. Remember when the helmet was put into effect? The reason was to save lives. If that is the case why are people whining about enforcement. Obviously the police care more about saving black lives than others. What's the problem with that?


I wouldn't go so far as to call it racist, so much as a tax on the poor. When searching for the cause behind a correlation in regards to legislation, you find a lot of that.

The solution here is, instead of ticketing people, start a city program to warn people, and a means-tested program to bring the warning in and get a free helmet. Work with rad, greg's or any of our million bike shops to make it happen.