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May 2022 - Episode 4

Helmet Laws

Until February of 2022, Seattle was the largest city in the country where it was illegal for anyone – kids, adults or senior citizens – to ride a bike without a helmet. 

There’s no question that helmets save lives. But some people just aren’t going to wear them, whether or not it’s illegal. Helmet laws are similar to sidewalk riding laws. They’re intended to keep people safe, but they also give police officers an excuse to stop cyclists. 

So how and why did Seattle decide to repeal their helmet law?

Helmet laws are just one way that Black Americans, unhoused cyclists and other marginalized communities have had their mobility arrested. Today we’re exploring how enforcement of helmet laws can give way to racial and economic injustice.

man biking
Photo by Nazar Strutynsky on Unsplash

Ethan C. Campbell:
For those who are homeless, having access to biking is really important, it means access to mobility, to independence, to a source of joy. And these are folks who are stigmatized by exclusion from public spaces and other forms of mobility in very real ways.

Charles T. Brown:
In the city of Seattle, a progressive street newspaper called Real Change covers social issues like poverty and racism. Real Change provides work and opportunities to unhoused people through their vendor program. If someone is having a hard time holding down a job, they can buy Real Change papers from the source and sell them on the street at a profit. Let’s go back in time a few years. It’s March 2019, a Real Change vendor is biking in Seattle’s Soto neighborhood. A car comes out of nowhere and hits the Real Change vendor knocking him off the bike.

Speaker 3:
I went from his bumper to his hood, to his windshield, to his roof, and back onto the concrete. He then backed up and went around my head, missing my head by only this much and took off. Well, luckily, a couple of good citizens went and chased this man down and blocked the intersection off a quarter mile down the street so that he couldn’t proceed any further. The first officer to arrive was a sheriff. I was pretty much out of it, but he was pretty much cordial and everything. Then the last people on the scene were the SPD, Seattle Police Department.

Right away I could hear from what they were saying that they tried to put the blame on me, you know what I’m saying, which I knew I was in every right, and this guy had just ran down the street. Come to find out later, they let that guy go. They pretty much did nothing to him and then tried to accuse me of the fact that I wasn’t wearing a helmet. They tried to twist it on me somehow. A helmet really had nothing to do with him running me over at that speed.

Speaker 4:
When you found him, was he wearing a helmet?

Speaker 5:
Doesn’t look like it. Wearing sunglasses.

Speaker 4:
[inaudible 00:02:26].

Speaker 5:
Well, [inaudible 00:02:34] helmet.

Speaker 4:
Is this stolen?

Speaker 6:
Probably. Do you really want to know?

Charles T. Brown:
This is actual audio from the scene of the crash. It was captured from a police officer’s body camera. Listen, as the police use helmet laws to rationalize giving a ticket to the man who was just hit by a car.

Speaker 4:
He’s going to get a couple citations. He just rode out, cross traffic, got hit. I’ll right it for something and no helmet. It increased our resources having to be responded because he got injured because he wasn’t wearing a helmet, so.

Charles T. Brown:
Until February of 2022, Seattle was one of the largest cities in the country where it was illegal for anyone, kids, adults, or senior citizens to ride a bike without a helmet. Most cities in the U.S. have helmet laws that only apply to young riders. There’s no question that helmets save lives, but some people just aren’t going to wear them whether or not it’s illegal. Helmet laws are similar to sidewalk riding laws.,They’re intended to keep people safe, but they also give police officers an excuse to stop cyclists. Helmet laws are just one way that Black Americans, unhoused cyclists, and other marginalized communities have had their mobility arrested. Today, we’re exploring how enforcement of helmet laws can give way to racial and economic injustice. I am Charles T. Brown, and this is Arrested Mobility. Thanks for joining us. Let’s go back to the Real Change vendor that you just heard from. He chooses to remain anonymous for fear of further harassment from the police. What types of injuries did you sustain?

Speaker 3:
I had laser surgery on one knee. I had a bunch of cracked ribs. Something happened to my neck. I wasn’t able to see. I had to look at the ground for two years or something. I went through therapy and all that, but it was a lot.

Charles T. Brown:
So that particular day, I’m curious, and this is not to judge you in any way, but is there a reason why you were not wearing a helmet?

Speaker 3:
Why should I have to wear a helmet? The city has thousands of bikes that they have out there and they don’t have to wear helmets. It’s a ridiculous, bias law. A helmet blocks my vision, it brings my neck down too low, I’m not as aware around me. I’m not saying that it’s not a safety issue. For those that want to wear them, so be it. But they can’t have it both ways. They can’t tell me to put on a helmet and then rent bikes all over the town and city and the suburbs and let them people go twice the speed that I do because their bikes are electric. They go a lot faster. The people on the scooters are a lot more dangerous. They’re going up onto the sidewalk, then down into the street, acting like wild people, but they don’t do anything to them. So yeah, I was pretty fed up with it. I’m not putting a helmet on when you don’t have everybody else doing it.

I’m just not that type of person. I particularly got harassed quite a few times. I’m trying to get around an officer one day that has somebody pulled over and he tells me to wait. And I said, “Wait for what?” “You’re not wearing a helmet,” and a white guy rides by on the opposite side of the street without a helmet. I said, “Well, go look at him.” It didn’t matter. It was just a way for them to harass you and move you on, get you out of their district or whatever.

Charles T. Brown:
Why do you think they mistreated you in that situation?

Speaker 3:
At that point in time in my life, I wasn’t physically able to go out and get a job or nothing, so I was doing the papers out there and such. And in that particular situation, I know it didn’t help that I had some Real Change papers on me and a Real Change badge on the ground, and that to them made me seem as if I’m homeless. So I’m just another statistic to them, somebody they don’t want in their area.

Charles T. Brown:
Since 2017, unhoused people received about half of the citations that police issued under Seattle’s helmet law. Transportation advocates also found that Black cyclists were four times more likely than white cyclists to be ticketed for not wearing a helmet. This data was so persuasive that in 2022, Keene County, which encompasses Seattle and surrounding suburbs decided to repeal their helmet law. The movement to overturn this law was a collaboration between Real Change, Central Seattle Greenways, and Cascade Bicycle Club. Ethan Campbell is one of the researchers who helped make this repeal possible.

Ethan C. Campbell:
I’m Ethan C. Campbell. I’m a transportation advocate with Central Seattle Greenways. CSG is a pretty hyper local organization as part of the citywide Seattle Neighborhood Greenways Coalition here. We fight for street safety improvements for people walking and biking, but in recent years we’ve been looking more broadly at ways to keep people safe that have been, I think, too long neglected by the transportation advocacy community.

Charles T. Brown:
What do we know about disparities in police interactions with users of our transportation system in general?

Ethan C. Campbell:
Yeah, this speaks to the reason why what we found here in Seattle with helmet enforcement was not a surprise. Because we know that around the country, Black drivers and pedestrians are stopped at disproportionate rates, and we also know from data from a few cities that this is the case for those on bikes as well. And there have been some great reports looking at not only the rate at which people get stopped, but the reasons that they get stopped. And we know that Black cyclists are stopped more frequently on the basis of suspicion, the basis of probable cause, many of these minor violations are used as reasons to motivate a search, a warrant check, a frisk. It’s basically the definition of pretextual policing. We didn’t have that data for Seattle, so that’s what we were really interested in digging into here.

Charles T. Brown:
Now, many would say that we need helmet laws because they’re effective at preventing injuries. Does your research support that claim?

Ethan C. Campbell:
So we know helmets do help, there’s no doubt about that though. It’s true that they’re far from fully protective. And it’s also true that as a society in the U.S., I think we’ve relied too much on helmets as a solution for safety and too little on actually creating the safe infrastructure for biking that we need. There are studies that fine helmet laws have been useful in increasing helmet use, decreasing injury rates, but nearly all of those studies were looking at the enactment of brand new helmet laws two or three decades ago, and that’s a time when helmet use was not already widespread as a norm. And that older data, it really has trouble shedding light on the questions that were most relevant to us here in King County today, namely is this three decades old helmet law that we had on the books, is it still useful? Is it still providing benefits? And the answer that we found was pretty clearly no, for a few reasons. I think one is that a helmet use has become this widespread norm for most people who ride bikes.

And by most people, in Seattle, that’s mostly recreational cyclists who skew more white, more wealthy. And then the remaining subset of 10 to 20% of riders who aren’t wearing helmets, they aren’t wearing them despite the fact that there was this helmet law in the books. That speaks to a few things, that one’s the cost of helmets, which represents an unequal burden for folks who are low income. And it’s also a lack of exposure to education around helmet use, something that we know is powerful and could be a lot more widespread. The solution that we’ve been relying on for decades as a city and a county just having police cracked down on helmet violations, it was never designed to address those challenges of access and education. It’s worth mentioning that opposition to helmet laws was not always mainstream, but it is becoming more mainstream and it’s now the consensus view of some expert groups like NACDO, the National Association of City Transportation Officials, as well as APBP, which is Association of Pedestrian Bike Professionals. So helmet use, it’s important, but it’s far from the final word on safety.

Charles T. Brown:
One national organization that opposes helmet laws but encourages the use of helmets by cyclists is the League of American Bicyclists. I talked to their policy director, Ken McLeod, in order to get a broader perspective on this issue outside of Seattle.

Ken McLeod:
My name is Ken McLeod, I’m the policy director at the League of American Bicyclists, and I’ve worked at the league for about a decade.

Charles T. Brown:
Hi, Ken. Tell me about the League of American Bicyclists.

Ken McLeod:
So the League of American Bicyclists is a national nonprofit bicycle advocacy organization. Our mission is to lead the movement to create a bicycle-friendly America for everyone. And we do that by working at the national level on federal policy and through our bicycle-friendly America program that engages communities, universities and businesses as well as states and our smart cycling program that is trained about 7,000 people who teach bicycle education classes in the United States.

Charles T. Brown:
What are your current thoughts on efforts to repeal bicycle helmet laws like the situation in Seattle?

Speaker 6:
So the League of American Bicyclists has a board-adopted position on helmets. We strongly encourage all people to wear helmets when they’re biking, and for those helmets to be properly fitted, and to meet the highest safety standards possible. We believe bicycle helmets are an effective safety device and their use is recommended for all league-affiliated club rides. Helmet use is required to be covered by our cycling insurance for bicycle education or club rides, but we do not support mandatory helmet laws.

Charles T. Brown:
If you’re in support of helmets, why don’t you support helmet laws?

Speaker 6:
We believe that helmets are a personal protective device and that the public policy of having laws that require their use and the enforcement of those laws is not the best way to promote their use. The data that exists on helmets proves their effectiveness, but we do not believe that it supports the effectiveness of passing a law and enforcing a law as the best way to create a culture of wearing helmets and wearing helmets safely. We think bicycle safety depends on much more than helmets. Helmets are a last line of defense, and we need to do more than punish people for not wearing helmets to make sure that people who are biking are safe.

Charles T. Brown:
What is the role of law enforcement in increasing the safety of cyclists in our cities?

Speaker 6:
Traditionally, the role of law enforcement has been to sometimes do bicycle presentations, it has been to enforce laws related to bicycling, often primarily against people who are biking rather than the motorists that cause danger to them. There is also a large role for law enforcement in data collection, whether that’s through fatal crashes, or serious injury crashes, or just property damage only crashes. Law enforcement is our frontline of data collection and understanding what’s happening in our communities in terms of traffic safety.

Charles T. Brown:
Okay. If we’re not penalizing cyclists who don’t wear helmets, what can we do in the bicycle movement to ensure the safety of all riders?

Speaker 6:
The League of American Bicyclists thinks the most important thing for the safety of all riders is creating safe and connected networks for people who are biking. So having that public investment in safe spaces for people to bike is the most important thing and the thing that will have the highest impact on rider safety. We also believe strongly in education. We have had a bicycle education program since the 1970s, so we would love to see more public support for bicycle education including education of students. And through that education, research says that there’s a higher rate of helmet wearing after people have gone through education and they have safer behaviors. So by supporting people rather than punishing people, we can create a positive culture of helmet use and rider safety

Charles T. Brown:
Along with Central Seattle Greenways, an organization called Cascade Bicycle Club played an important role in getting Seattle’s helmet law off the books. Their executive director, Lee Lambert always wears a helmet when he gets on his bike, even if he’s just testing the height of his seat. Cascade Bicycle Club even helped pass the King County Helmet Law in the 1990s, but last year they changed their tune.

Lee Lambert:
My name is Lee Lambert and I’m the executive director of Cascade Bicycle Club and Washington Bikes. So Cascade actually has had an interesting journey of the Bicycle Helmet Law in King County. In the 90s, we were the organization that advocated for the adult youth Bicycle Helmet Law. A little over 18 months ago, there was a article published in Crosscut where some of the staff at Cascade, this is before I joined the organization, saw the data of the [inaudible 00:17:04] enforcement and really, the organization, the board, and staff had a reckoning of is this law doing potentially more harm than good. And so Cascade being a large organization with a full-time policy advocacy staff began reaching out to the King County Board of Health, which is made up of city council members and county council members to make a case for repealing this law.

Charles T. Brown:
What kind of pushback did that cause in your organization? There

Lee Lambert:
There wasn’t a lot of pushback. I think we’re fortunate to have members who can respond to data and the data was plain. The pushback really came from the traumatic brain injury community. It was like we were having two different conversations. They were having a conversation about do helmets work, and that was never the question for us. We believe helmets work. We strongly encourage helmet use. The question was, is the law increasing helmet use? And the answer to that was no. And do you need armed men telling people to wear a helmets when we know that even the most simple interaction between a police officer and a person of color can turn very tragic very quickly.

Charles T. Brown:
What are some of the challenges you face in making cycling more equitable and inclusive in King County?

Lee Lambert:
In Seattle area, we have had a history of disinvestment of infrastructure in communities of color. So Seattle is a city shaped kind of like an hourglass, and the north side has been historically white and the southeast side was historically was the red line part of the community. It’s all expensive now, all of it, but we still have concentrations of people of color in the southeast and southwest part of the community and there’s been a lack of investment for decades in bike infrastructure. And our most dangerous street in the city runs right through the historically Black neighborhood in Seattle. Our challenge is getting the resources to improve the infrastructure in that part of the city quicker. There’s lots of, we want to do it and there’s plans and I’ve seen pretty pictures, but there are people riding on those streets today and it can be significantly safer for them.

Charles T. Brown:
This is a story we hear a lot in American cities. There’s often a lack of investment in equitable transportation infrastructure for communities of color. Like many cities, Seattle also has a severe housing crisis and it’s only getting worse. Researcher Ethan Campbell explains what law enforcement data tells us about the racial and economic inequalities of King County. Why do you think certain populations, particularly Black, brown and the unhoused have received helmet citations more than others?

Ethan C. Campbell:
We know that in Seattle, over half of all tickets have gone to folks who are unhoused. The number is likely far greater than that. That’s probably an underestimate based on the methodology that was used to get that from the reporter who found that fact. That in itself is contributing to the racial disparities because we know that in King County, those who are unhoused are disproportionately Black, disproportionately Indigenous, and far disproportionately. So that alone is telling us that this is impacting a very small swath of our population. This issue is not something that is really prominent in a lot of folks’ minds because those who are getting targeted for enforcement are those who are living on the streets and it’s happening for a whole host of policing-related reasons.

Charles T. Brown:
What about racial residential segregation? Do you think this could be about controlling the access to certain parts of the city, especially when you look at it from the perspective of how the unhoused are perceived by law enforcement and the protection of private property?

Ethan C. Campbell:
So good questions. We took a bit of a look into where these tickets are issued, and I should say this is work done by two fantastic undergrad students at University of Washington that I mentored on this project. It was actually surprising in that the ticketing for all bike-related infractions, not just helmet infractions, was not concentrated in communities of color, which we know are disproportionately in the south end of Seattle, but rather concentrated in areas with many homeless encampments, homeless shelters, homeless service providers, and those are the areas where we see these highest per capita rates of ticketing. I think that speaks to, of course, who’s being targeted here. It’s a correlation, so it’s not directly causative so we can’t infer causation there, but it’s strongly suggestive of something going on there. To speak to your larger question, we know for those who are homeless, having access to biking is really important, it means access to mobility, to independence, to a source of joy. These are folks who are stigmatized in very real ways by exclusion from public spaces and other forms of mobility like transit, so cracking down on their ability to bike.

These are folks who largely don’t wear helmets when they bike. It really represents this additional restriction on the segment of the population that’s biking, not out of choice, but out of necessity. And certainly there are overlapping influences like the nature of place to crack down on urban disorder to protect property, as you said. That’s a large motivation for the sweeps that we see happening here in Seattle where folks who are living in encampments are being moved from place to place even when they’re just existing in public spaces. They get ticketed for loitering, for other sorts of these minor quality of life infractions that serve to stigmatize their existence.

Charles T. Brown:
The helmet law repeal in Seattle was a great victory, but transportation advocates are still working on behalf of marginalized communities that are affected by inadequate infrastructure and pretextual policing. Repealing helmet laws is just one step in the right direction. Here’s Ken McLeod, policy director of the League of American Bicyclists on why so many Americans are still unable to bike safely.

Ken McLeod:
I would say, generally, many of the bicycle-related traffic laws that we have were created primarily by motor vehicle interests and have been adapted over the years by bicycle advocates to make them better for bikes, but they still have this baseline of we needed to control bikes so that motor vehicles could thrive and have unimpeded ability to drive on our roadways. So people will talk about where to ride laws that say you have to ride as far to the ride as practicable except for between four and seven exceptions to that. And that has a complexity that is not easy for people to understand and is probably not widely known. There is also a problem with the way that traffic safety has engaged with bicycle safety and made bicycle helmet laws the number one priority of NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and many state highway safety offices. NHTSA has this document called Countermeasures that work. It gives everything star ratings and dollar sign ratings for whether or not a traffic safety intervention works.

Helmet laws have been the only thing that they have recommended for bicycle safety for 10 additions of countermeasures that work. It’s disappointing to me to see that as a person who’s very concerned with public policy and bicycle safety because they haven’t engaged with the rise of bike share, where many people don’t use helmets but have a good safety record. They just haven’t updated their thinking about what makes people who bike safe and they haven’t engaged with safer infrastructure or social supports in ways that provide a holistic understanding of what make people who bike safe. They don’t even get a dollar estimate of what it costs to enforce it, they just say, “Pass a law.” They don’t discuss enforcement at all, it’s not on their radar. I think it’s an unfortunate disservice to people who want more people wearing helmets that we don’t have a nuanced and proactive discussion of what bicycle helmet wearing means to bicycle safety in that document.

There was a recent government accountability office report about NHTSA’s programs and it talked about bicycle and pedestrian safety and it called them out for limited information about the countermeasures that are implemented with NHTSA funds, limited context about the effectiveness of those countermeasures and that lack of advancement over time in the understanding of bicycle safety and what is actually being done with NHTSA funding. We know, anecdotally, that NHTSA funding does some things that on their face do not seem very interested in promoting bicycle safety. Like Hawaii, in their annual report or their highway safety plan has reported that they use NHTSA funding to enforce their bicycle registration law. So pulling people over who are biking to see if their bike is registered, that’s the type of equipment violation that we know through other research is likely to have discriminatory or disparate impacts, and it’s being paid for by the federal government. We don’t have any data on the safety benefits that they believe that they are getting from that.

It’s like 6 or $700 million that goes through NHTSA’s grants programs and that can impact bicycle safety in positive ways or it can lead to bad outcomes. I don’t believe that we have a good enough understanding of what that amount of money is doing. I’m going to quote from Federal Highways here. USDOT has gone all on board with something called the safe system approach and the Federal Highway Administration published a safe system approach primer for bicycle and pedestrian safety, I think it was last year. In the context of helmets and that personal responsibility for your safety that helmets provide, because they aren’t a systemic approach to safety, here’s what Federal Highway Administration says. It says, “In the context of pedestrian and bicyclist safety, shared responsibility means that there will be a need to rebalance responsibility that has largely been placed on individual road users themselves.” The federal government on one hand is asking for a more systemic approach. And then on the other hand, at NHTSA we are hearing personal protective equipment is our solution and we need those things to come together so that we have one systemic approach for bicycle safety.

Charles T. Brown:
We’ve heard a lot of constructive solutions today. I agree that investments in bicycle education and equitable infrastructure are great tools to help keep people safe. And to be clear, yes, I wear a helmet and I believe that everyone should wear a helmet every time they get on a bicycle. Whether you’re going to a friend’s house down the road or commuting across town, please, please wear a helmet if you can. But here’s the hard truth, the truth that no one wants to talk about. Getting more people to wear helmets doesn’t actually address the discriminatory enforcement of helmet laws, for that, we need to examine and change our systems from the top down, every single one of them. This story from Lee Lambert is just one of the reasons why

Lee Lambert:
I am very aware of how I might be perceived by other people in the world if I find myself as the only person of color in the space or in a community and try to make people feel comfortable. I’ve been doing it for so long, it doesn’t feel like work, but if you think about it is. It’s not necessarily bike-related, but I think it is illustrative of this. When I come here, I never wear a jacket into the mall to go shopping. So if I have to do that cold walk from the car or the bus into the shopping center, even though I have plenty of resources, I don’t wear a jacket and it’s been like that I was a kid because I didn’t want to be perceived as someone who might be stealing something. I thought that was normal until I talked to my white friends who’ve never had that thought. And so you can translate that into bicycling experience as well. I don’t know if that resonates with you.

Charles T. Brown:
I want to thank my guests, Ethan Campbell, Lee Lambert, Ken McLeod, and especially the anonymous Real Change vendor who was courageous enough to speak about his experience. For Arrested Mobility, I am Charles T. Brown. I encourage you to follow me on social media at CTBrown1911 on Twitter or using #ArrestedMobility. To read the research we’ve discussed today, you’ll find all the links on our page for this episode at ArrestedMobility.com. You can follow Arrested Mobility on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you listen.