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.