Safety Takes A Back Seat In Seattle

Granted, I came of age when there was no such thing as a bike helmet. Not only did we ride bikes, but we did so everywhere, for great distances, without a second thought. And whether we were on a fancy three-speed English racer or a hip Sting Ray with its banana seat and butterfly handlebars, it was freedom for a kid and our only means of transportation.

I never wore a bike helmet. No one did. And I survived. But then I met Ted, the father of one of my daughter’s friends, who had been an avid bike rider when he was in an accident, went over the handlebars and was severely brain damaged. Ted was such a sweet guy, but what remained was a shell of a human being. It was so sad. I would never let my kids ride without a helmet, even if the law permitted otherwise. But the law didn’t, and I understood why.

That the law would require a cyclist to wear a helmet would seem controversial only to the extent that it denied the rider the personal freedom to decide for themselves whether to do so. After all, the law didn’t forbid someone to wear a helmet for their personal safety, but required it. Everyone could still wear a helmet if that was their choice, but those who decided they didn’t want to had the freedom to make a bad choice.

But then, what of people who didn’t put that much thought into it and didn’t wear a helmet not because of choice but neglect or recklessness? What of children who were incapable of making sound choices but refused parents admonitions? What of parents of children who were too reckless, ignorant or narcissistic to care what needless risks their children were taking? That’s where law came into play, requiring it for the sake of those who lacked the capacity to make rational decisions for themselves or others, particularly when those others were too young or vulnerable to make wise choices for themselves.

None of these thoughts, however, prevailed in Seattle, naturally, when the city council decided to end the “cult” of the helmet.

Last year, health officials in Seattle decided to stop requiring bicyclists to wear helmets. Independent research found that nearly half of Seattle’s helmet tickets in recent years went to unhoused people, while Black and Native American cyclists in the city were four times and two times more likely, respectively, than white cyclists to be cited.

Whether people should wear helmets was not the motivation behind the repeal, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said at the time. “The question is whether a helmet law that is enforced by police, on balance, produces results that outweigh the harms the law creates.” For lawmakers, the answer was clear: The potential benefits of a helmet mandate were not worth the harms it did to marginalized Seattle residents.

The tradeoff here wasn’t safety versus freedom, but safety versus the harms done to  the marginalized who violated the law and didn’t wear helmets. Was it because Seattle police let helmetless white cyclists bike around with abandon, or that “unhoused” and “Black and Native American cyclists” didn’t wear helmets at a disproportionate rate? Certainly the ubiquity of bike sharing programs affected the situation, but is it any better to get creamed  by a semi on a shared bike than your own bike?

Although it wasn’t the motivator for Seattle’s helmet law repeal, there are other rationalizations for the elimination of helmet laws.

But some local bike advocates argued that there was a second advantage: Repealing the law could make riding more safe. Helmet mandates intimidate potential riders, they argued, by framing cycling as an activity so dangerous it necessitates body armor. That, in turn, can suppress ridership, and take away the safety benefits of riding in numbers. The more bicyclists take up space on the road, the more visible they become to drivers. And as cars more regularly contend with bikes, the more consideration bikes will get in conversations about transit safety and road infrastructure.

Whether this argument is promoted seriously or is a grasp at chaos theory by advocates desperately seeking to make Seattle’s shift not seem as an embrace of dead black cyclists over getting a ticket for a minor infraction for not doing something they should, and easily could, do, is unclear. But given that the repeal of the helmet law because black bikers are  proportionately ticketed more than white bikers needs some way to pretend they care nothing about life and death, any grasped straw will do.

Here’s the Seattle Times’ obligatory discouraging word from an emergency medicine provider:

Dr. Steven Mitchell, medical director of the emergency department at Harborview Medical Center, said his opposition to the repeal is rooted in his daily experiences with people who’ve suffered a head injury. “I worry that the culture of people who are riding their bicycles will begin to shift away from the absolute necessity to wear them every single time,” he said in an interview.

We’ll come back to Mitchell and Harborview later, after we place the Seattle repeal in a larger social-justice context.

And while that sums up the Seattle debate, head injury versus social justice, cycling activists now proffer a laundry list why helmets are evil.

But helmet laws have a further twist: they discourage bicycling. 

Precisely how much isn’t fully settled, partly because the extent varies with culture, population and the severity of enforcement. But just about all of us know someone who won’t wear a helmet. They’re expensive. (The Seattle Times illustrated its story on the helmet law repeal with a photo of helmets for sale, starting at $129). They muss people’s hair. To the uninitiated, they look and feel dorky. They’re a nuisance to store or carry around. Or whatever. The fact is that some people ride less or not at all if they know they have to wear a helmet. The most studied helmet law, covering Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, in the 1990s, reportedly triggered a one-third reduction in cycling among those who formerly rode bare-headed.

The difference here is that it’s one thing to argue that every cyclist should wear a helmet, even if there is no law requiring them to do so such that cops can’t pinch homeless bike riders rather than white ones (yes, homeless and white are not opposites, but I didn’t invent the rationalization), but another to argue that helmets themselves are evil because they muss your hair.

Not much has changed from the rationale for enacting mandatory helmet laws, a very progressive safety measure at the time, other than there being more cyclists because of bike sharing. And, of course, Seattle putting social justice before life and limb.

32 thoughts on “Safety Takes A Back Seat In Seattle

  1. delurking

    “And while that sums up the Seattle debate, head injury versus social justice, cycling activists now proffer a laundry list why helmets are evil.”

    That laundry list has been around since at least the mid-90s, when I started using a bike to get around. All but one of the scientific studies mentioned are at least that old, all of the unknowns are the same, and all of the talking points are the same, including the social justice one. Then, it wasn’t in style to make it explicitly racial, but they argued that poor people using a bike to get to work are less likely to wear helmets than rich cyclists doing it as a hobby.

  2. Guitardave

    Come on man!…just give those poor homeless folks free helmets, fer christsakes!
    …and next week, after a 947% increase in citizens being assaulted with bicycle helmets…

    A helmet can’t guarantee you won’t wake up compromised…plus, a three letter tattoo is way cheaper…

    1. norahc

      “Come on man!…just give those poor homeless folks free helmets, fer christsakes!
      …and next week, after a 947% increase in citizens being assaulted with bicycle helmets…”

      Nah, bike locks are cheaper than helmets, so they’ll probably make those mandatory instead.

  3. Mike V.

    While people should wear helmets on bicycle, and motorcycles; and seat belts in cars; I’d argue that for grown-ups it should be personal choice. Legislating a person’s behavior “for their own good” is a slope I’d really like to see government get off and stay off.

    But to repeal the law because of its “disproportionate impact on the homeless and minorities is, to my mind, silly.

    1. SHG Post author

      As I’m sure you realize, the argument is that society pays the cost of injury, justifying a societal interest in take precautions to avoid injury. Whether that trumps personal freedom is the political question.

      1. davep

        Slippery slope. Society also pays the cost of falls in the home too. And there are many more of those than falls off bicycles. Therefore, people should be required to wear helmets in the bathroom. Or even when driving. Ted’s unfortunate story could also have been told about somebody falling in the bathroom.

        Requiring helmets is your “something must be done; here’s something”.

  4. paleo

    “or that “unhoused” and “Black and Native American cyclists” didn’t wear helmets at a disproportionate rate?”

    My first thought was that this was probably the case, particularly among the Unhoused. But I bet they didn’t bother to try to find out.

    I’m basically libertarian and I don’t see what’s wrong with letting people figure it out for themselves. Then again, I’m not the guy to ask. I’m still pissed because in 198whatever when Texas passed the then-unpopular mandatory seat belt law Governor Mark White promised us that enforcement of the law would only be secondary – you’d only get a ticket for it if they pulled you over for something else and you weren’t wearing. Turns out that was, shockingly, a lie. It’s Texas. let us be free. If the commies in Seattle can do it, why can’t we?

  5. Elpey P.

    This new flavor of “social justice” sure does have a predilection for splitting the baby. They should wear t-shirts that say, “I love demographics. It’s people I can’t stand.” If a law is there to protect people, but is running afoul of the numbers, well maybe we shouldn’t have tried to protect people. At least those people.

    But at least they are making concerns over disproportionate impact a renewable resource. Their turn will come. Perhaps the narrative will be that they were cynical bureaucrats who wanted to shield the system from criticism rather than reform it holistically and address the root causes. Damn, that white supremacy is pernicious.

    1. SHG Post author

      What do they do when the unhoused, black and native American bike riders disproportionately suffer debilitating head injuries? This is a conundrum.

      1. The Infamous Oregon Lawhobbit

        Particularly when White Supremacists insist on continuing to wear helmets.*

        Maybe the pendulum needs to go ALL the way and Seattle needs an ordinance *prohibiting* helmet-wearing, due to its racist nature.

        *and I write this as the guy who wore a motorcycle helmet in Kansas, a “no-helmet” state. And not because the Army required.

      2. davep

        We have no idea whether this group suffers a disproportionately larger rate of head injuries. The risk of head injuries is likely larger with fasteru cycling speeds and riding in the road. Most of this group might ride slow on the sidewalk. Head injuries related to cycling are fairly rare and bicycle helmets aren’t perfect. We have no idea how much requiring helmets would change the rate. Overall or in a specific population.

        But something must be done and such laws are something.

        People like helmet laws because they are easy and not controversial. Since most of the US don’t use bicycles regularly, it’s also easy to create laws for “other people”. And there’s no idea how effective these laws are.

        I ride regularly and use a helmet. I’m not “anti helmet” but I’m not sure if we need or want laws for everything.

    1. Paleo

      Helmet requirements are white supremacy.


      They had helmet requirements in communist Russia.

      Pick the meme that matches your strident political belief and flog it to death. It’s the modern thing to do.

  6. RCJP

    Los Angeles just hit a multi-decade high for traffic fatalities.

    Of course the City Council’s priority is to prohibit LAPD from even more traffic stops.

  7. schorsch

    I looked it up, and I found a lot of articles, citing ‘studies have shown’ that helmet laws lead to
    – no social-economical benefits
    – higher readiness to assume a risk
    – increasing stroke risks due to less people driving a bike

    But I couldn’t find the studies! At least not a single study which was more than ‘I feel so, and my neighbor says the same’.

    At our first day at university, another freshman, driving a bike in the campus gardens, missed a single step, fell on her head, broke her skull and was immediately dead. Not a good start of her academic career…

    This clearly showed me the benefits of a helmet, while in all my life I never experienced the disadvantages cited in the slate- and other articles.

    Nevertheless – I personally refuse to wear a helmet on a bicycle. Never did. A helmet once saved my life, but that was on a motorcycle at much higher speed. Wearing a helmet on a bike I simply would feel ridiculous.

    But that is my personal idiosyncrasy, and I would make myself a a much more ridiculous jester, would I try to rationalize this quirk like them fools cited in the slate article does.

    1. B. McLeod

      As far as breaking her skill and being immediately dead, I think that just cuts to the chase of the modern “academic career.”

  8. Charlie O

    When I was a kid (in the 70s), the idea of a “mom taxi” was ridiculous. I was completely dependent upon my various incarnations of bicycles for transportation around Stockton, CA. I delivered newspapers from my bike with cloth bags hanging from the handlebars, rode across the entire city if I wanted to get anywhere. I rode about 5 miles, at night, back from stamp club meetings. I don’t even think bicycle helmets were even a thing then. If you told me I needed one, I probably would have looked at you cross eyed and laughed you out of the room.

    1. Drew Conlin

      Responding to you Charlie O reminded me of the National Lampoon Sunday newspaper parody issue.
      The delightful cover was a kid on a bike with a paper bag full of puppies each with a newspaper in its mouth.
      Off topic I know but frankly I’m bewildered by this silly posturing of Seattle officials.

  9. Fubar

    And while that sums up the Seattle debate, head injury versus social justice, cycling activists now proffer a laundry list why helmets are evil.

    If from helmets you choose to refrain,
    Then you fall, and you injure your brain.
    Your creed, color or race
    Cannot ever replace
    What you’ve lost. It’s not hard to explain!

  10. Rengit

    I like how they point out the evidence from NSW in Australia that a law requiring helmets resulted in there being significantly fewer cyclists on the road, presumably because people didn’t want to wear a helmet and so didn’t bike. What a finding! I guess I’m to assume that the only reason is the dastardly auto manufacturers and Exxon Mobil lobbied for the bike helmet laws in order to get people in cars and line their pockets?

    Next thing we’ll be told is that repealing seat belt requirements and greatly raising the BAC content before you can get charged with a DUI is a good thing because results in more drivers on the road who otherwise might not want to get in the car, or removing prohibitions on alcohol consumption and public intoxication at the public pool is good because then more people will show up to get swimming exercise.

  11. Tionico

    In August of 1955 a skinny runt of an eight year old hauled his Dad’s full suzed bike out of the garage and made up his mind he would ride it. Three days and a few pints of spilled blood later he figured it out. Within a few weeks he was riding everywhere, still unable to sit ON the big seat and reach bot pedals with his feet. Fast forward to 1962 the kid talked his Dad into buying him an Italian ten speed for thirty dollars. By the time I had finished high school I had ridden that bike everywhere from Camp Pendleton north to Port Huaneme, and inland to Big Bear, March Air Force Base, Lake Elsinore and everywhere in between Helmets DID exist, and we all knew they were racist back then. HOW? The only guys that wore them were the RACERS, and those “helmets” strongly resembled a pair of ladies’ bedroom slippers, each halfed lengthwise, and held together with a leather thong. They were also so dear we could not afford them. Spent that money on new tyres. By the time I;d finished high school I had logged close to 20,000 miles. No helmet No crashes. Years went by and so did the miles.. tens of thousands of them. The
    plastic shell hard foam lined brain buckets came on decades later, were lightweignt and comfrtable, and the attitude of far too many motorists that bicycles vapourised when cars came within three inches of them caused me to invest. I’ve ridden somewhere around 200K miles on the roads (I HATE the trails. and paths…..) and never crashed once. I wear my helmet almost always. Once it got stolen off my bike when parked. Would some copper write me up and make me gotalk to the guy in black pyjamas cause some (homeless) dirtbag pinched my helmet? )In Seaattle, yes.
    Seems to me if the poohbahs that mangle Seattle REALLY had any concern for the homeless they’d DO something about the rampant misuse of fantanyl and other hard drugs within that group. Nationwide the F drug alone ends around 100,000 lives each year. How many folks die of head injuries sustained whilst riding a bike bareheaded when the use of head protection very likely would have prevented the fatality, AND all other injuries were non-fatal? Most car-bike contacts are at low speeds, but a fair number of them hve the larger item travelling at far higher speed than the lightwweight one. We ALL know what happens when the smaller item gets launched by the larger one. There is the inituial contact and its damage, then the landing contact where other things get damaged, sometimes aggravated by being still tangled up with the bike. Helmets might help some, but in serious crashed they crack up into multiple useless pieces.

    Seattle’s “helmet law” likely was not vallid law in the first place, it beng a “health department regulation” and NOT enacted by any entity with the authority to MAKE LAW. It seemed mostly to be a source of revenue for the city.
    To thise who trot out tne matter of high cost as a mitigating factor against use, I see high quality helmets in as new condition at thrift stores all the time for five bucks. I keep an assortment of them about for friends who might need one. I’ve given away a few dozen. In some areas stop by your local fire station and many of them have helmets on hand for five bucks, or free.
    then we come to the matter of HOW are those bowls sitting atop the crania they are ostensibly there to protect? I see kids with the straps hanging, unconnected. Or perched n the back of the head lke a bonnet, useless to protect the critical front areas. Or far tooo large or small to do a lickof good.
    Yep, helmet laws are feel god measures for nanny type local governments, and/or a new source of revenue for said political entity.

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