Repealing King County’s helmet law is not the solution to police misconduct

Firm News Brain Injury/Spinal Cord Injury
Mar 06, 2022

By Sims Weymuller

Last month, the King County Board of Health voted to repeal its decades-old mandatory helmet law for bicycle riders, citing the law’s disproportional enforcement and discriminatory effect on BIPOC community members and people experiencing homelessness.

Pursuing race and social justice initiatives at these institutional and systemic levels is absolutely critical, and I applaud the Board of Health for taking this issue on and thoughtfully engaging in the hard work of anti-racism. The Board’s intent to find and root out the causes of institutional discrimination and disparate impact, like the enforcement of the helmet law, was clear and well-articulated.

As an attorney who advocates for victims of traumatic brain injury (TBI), and as a board member of the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington, I was compelled to provide public comment at the Board of Health’s hearing on this issue, alongside many concerned elected officials, medical experts, advocacy groups and community members from cities across King County.

Among them, several physicians from King County’s own Level 1 trauma center, Harborview Medical Center—including ICU, emergency, trauma, neurologist, neurosurgery, and pediatric specialists—testified that repealing the bike helmet law will result in more brain-injured patients coming through their doors. These are front-line workers who know what helmets can do, and what their absence portends.

Alongside these experts, my message was this: Repealing safety laws is not the solution for addressing police misconduct.

There is no shortage of data showing that enforcement of the mandatory helmet law in King County has disproportionately affected those experiencing homelessness and people of color. A study central to the Board of Health’s decision, conducted by the group advocating for the law’s repeal, determined that Black riders were almost four times more likely than white cyclists to receive a citation for not wearing a helmet.

However, repealing this safety-oriented law is just as likely to have a negative impact on our BIPOC and homeless communities as it is to protect these community members. Throughout last week’s testimony, the Board was urged by many experts to undertake an impact analysis to more thoroughly look at enforcement equity – a step required by the County’s own policies. Yet, they haven’t pursued this requisite study, and so we simply don’t know the repeal’s full effect on the communities it’s supposed to protect.

More importantly, however, there is a simple solution to more equitable enforcement of helmet laws – vouchers for free helmets instead of citations.

Instead of eliminating the mandatory helmet law altogether, change the law itself. Instead of ticketing helmetless riders, give them a free helmet voucher so they can have access to the necessary resources that keep them safe. This is the bare minimum that we should be doing for the safety of our communities and to prevent serious brain injuries.

The Metropolitan King County Council has already taken steps in the right direction, budgeting $200,000 for educational campaigns and free helmet distribution to help encourage riders to wear helmets when riding a bike. An equally critical piece is for the County to continue the Board of Health’s race and social justice work to promote institutional reform around the equitable enforcement of safety laws.

In my practice, I’ve seen firsthand the anguish of families faced with the effects of preventable traumatic brain injuries. Wearing a helmet is the most effective way to reduce head injuries and fatalities resulting from bicycle crashes. We should address the helmet law repeal by urging King County to continue its tough stance on race and social injustice while ensuring its decisions truly serve those they’re intended to protect.