Cascade Applauds Repeal of Harmful and Ineffective Bike Helmet Law
We urge everyone to wear a bike helmet, and we offer free or low-cost helmets to people who can't afford them.
Cascade Bicycle Club applauds the King County Board of Health for repealing its nearly 30-year-old bike helmet law on Thursday (Feb. 17) due to evidence of racial and anti-homeless bias in enforcement.
Data collected by Central Seattle Greenways researcher Ethan Campbell showed that Black people on bikes were ticketed in Seattle at a rate nearly four times greater than their white counterparts. Reporting by the news outlet Crosscut showed that nearly half of Seattle’s helmet tickets went to people experiencing homelessness. This data shows that the outdated law, added to the books three decades ago to safeguard people on bikes, was having the opposite effect and was causing harm.
“Cascade is 100 percent pro-helmet, but the data is clear: this law was harming vulnerable populations,” said Lee Lambert, executive director of Cascade Bicycle Club and its sister organization Washington Bikes. “A majority of riders in King County already wear helmets, but it’s our most vulnerable community members who have been targeted for enforcement. That’s just wrong.”
Helmet laws have a dubious track record across the country, and many municipalities including Tacoma have repealed them in recent years. In addition, there is no conclusive data showing that helmet laws make bicycling safer. In fact, evidence suggests that helmet laws discourage many people from bicycling and thus hurt crucial efforts to get more people out of cars and onto bikes.
Furthermore, laws are not needed to increase helmet use. In Portland, for example, 81 percent of people riding bikes use helmets even though there is no all-ages helmet law, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
Cascade requires helmets on its rides, provides them for free to children in its programs, and sells helmets for $10 to anyone needing one. Helmets are beneficial in many types of crashes, especially those that do not involve a car striking a person on a bike. But helmet manufacturers say helmets are not designed for the most dangerous types of crashes: those where a person on a bike is hit or run over by a car or truck. Motor vehicles are the biggest threat to the safety of people bicycling on our streets.
“How we build and rebuild our streets is far more important to the safety of people bicycling than helmet use,” said Vicky Clarke, Cascade and Washington Bikes policy director.
"Safety is the goal. Government can and should do more to ensure universal access to helmets, but we call on public officials who care about people biking and walking to reduce traffic speeds, build separated bike infrastructure, and fund connected trails,” added Clarke.
Cascade testified in favor of the repeal as part of a coalition of community organizations including Real Change and Central Seattle Greenways. The King County Board of Health listened to the community and voted on Thursday to repeal the bike helmet law that had been on the books since 1993, and which Seattle had enforced since 2003. Cascade originally advocated to get the law on the books, but thanks to the research of Campbell and numerous other advocates, changed its position in 2020.
In addition to urging public health officials and policymakers to increase bike safety initiatives, Cascade encourages anyone who needs a helmet to visit cascade.org/helmets, where we provide a list of free and reduced-cost helmet providers. To increase access to helmets, King County is in the process of hiring a program manager to distribute bike helmets and work alongside organizations including Cascade to increase bicycle safety, with a focus on communities of color and the unhoused.
Learn more about Cascade’s and Washington Bikes’ pro-helmet positions in our blog post: “Helmets Yes, Helmet Laws No.”