For Real Change vendors, biking is both a source of joy and a cost-effective way to get around. But as low-income and unhoused people, Real Change vendors who rely on bicycling for recreation, transportation and income face unique challenges that impact their ability to freely and safely ride in Seattle.
King County’s helmet law, which requires that all cyclists wear helmets, was established in 1993 with the goal of reducing head injuries. But this law has had negative impacts on unhoused and low-income Seattleites who bike, as well as cyclists of color. Both groups have been disproportionately targeted for enforcement. A report from Crosscut in 2020 found that nearly half of all helmet citations in recent years have gone to people experiencing homelessness. The Seattle Times reported that further research by advocates showed that Black cyclists have received helmet citations at nearly four times the rate of white cyclists.
These disparities in ticketing received little attention until Real Change released a video showing a disturbing instance of helmet law enforcement that occurred in March 2019. A Real Change vendor, who we will refer to as John, was hit by a driver and seriously injured while riding a bicycle in the Sodo neighborhood. As he lay on the ground in agony, police responding to the crash wrote John a ticket for not wearing a helmet instead of citing the driver, who was at fault for the collision. Last year, investigators with Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability upheld allegations of unprofessionalism against one officer involved. However, the investigation exonerated a second officer after failing to find that he showed anti-homeless bias in his ticketing and disparaging remarks toward John.
The 2019 incident was a deeply painful example of the dual harms that homeless bicyclists face: unsafe bicycling conditions and treatment by police officers that is too often harsh and unsympathetic. John, a person of color who was living unhoused at the time, explained in testimony to the King County Board of Health that this incident reflected a larger pattern of selective enforcement. Elected officials on the Board of Health, which enacted the helmet law, decided to reevaluate the law last year following vigorous advocacy from Real Change and partner organizations. The Board may vote to amend or repeal the law as soon as February.
Research over the past year by advocates has brought more details on helmet law enforcement to light. Combing through Seattle police records, they found that police frequently use helmet violations as an opportunity to question bicyclists, check for warrants and initiate investigations. These so-called “pretextual” or “mixed-motive” stops are contrary to the intended purpose of the helmet law. Even police stops intended to educate about safety can prove traumatizing and expensive. Helmet tickets issued in Seattle cost more than $150, with court fees and late penalties that are frequently added, representing an unequal burden for those of lesser means. Unpaid fines can lead to legal consequences that many view as criminalizing poverty.
At the same time, recent research studies found that helmet laws are not an effective public health strategy for decreasing head injuries among bicyclists. Helmets can help in a crash, but efforts to make helmets freely available and reduce the risk of vehicular collisions may offer greater safety benefits than requiring helmet use. Nonetheless, some doctors have expressed concerns about the possibility of a repeal of King County’s helmet law.
Over the past months, Real Change’s advocacy department has been asking other vendors who bike about their experiences with helmet law enforcement. These discussions show clearly that while John’s case was a particularly egregious example of this law in action, the impact of this law is far-reaching, and the selective enforcement of the helmet law is not an isolated occurrence. In conversations with three Real Change vendors who rely on cycling as their primary mode of transportation, each had received a citation at some point while biking in Seattle, and each had experienced one or more instances of police harassment stemming from riding a bicycle.
Dean (all names have been changed to ensure confidentiality), a vendor with Real Change for close to eight years, spoke with us about avoiding congested areas with his bike and riding on sidewalks to avoid confrontation and harassment from police, saying, “I’ll just ride on the sidewalk…I got a citation 10 years ago in a different era.” Logan, a vendor who bikes and has driven a pedicab as his job, spoke to the discretion used by police when determining who is ticketed and who is free to move freely.
“They [the police] can give tickets, but if they’re going to give tickets they need to talk to the tourists riding the lime bikes downtown without helmets,” he said.
We cannot keep laws on the books that we know are actively harming vulnerable and marginalized communities. This law is categorically being used to harass Black, brown and unhoused neighbors. The King County Board of Health will be considering this issue at their February meeting, and we urge the Board of Health to repeal the county’s helmet law.
Ethan Campbell contributed to this piece.
Read more of the Jan. 12-18, 2022 issue.