With a Commitment to Equity: Board of Health Updates King County’s Bike Helmet Policy

Bike helmets save lives and help prevent serious injuries. A review of several published studies estimates that bike helmets provide a 63-88% reduction in the risk of head and brain injuries for people who ride bikes. As part of the movement to encourage the use of bike helmets, the King County Board of Health passed a law in 1993 requiring anyone riding a bike to wear a helmet. 

However, data presented to the Board of Health has shown racist and discriminatory enforcement. Seattle Police Department data collected and analyzed by Seattle Neighborhood Greenways and the Helmet Law Working Group shows that police disproportionately gave helmet law citations to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color cyclists.

Their analysis found that Black riders were nearly four times as likely to be cited by police for not wearing a helmet while biking compared to White riders. Further, in Seattle, nearly half of the citations issued for biking without a helmet were given to people living homeless.

In light of this data, and in alignment with the Board of Health’s declaration of Racism as a Public Health crisis, on February 17, 2022, the Board of Health repealed the King County bike helmet law while affirming the importance of helmets in preventing serious injury and death. In a companion resolution passed in the same meeting, the Board of Health emphasized the importance of helmet use for bikes, scooters and other similar vehicles and committed to work with community partners to expand access to low and no-cost helmets, provide education on helmet safety, and support the improvements for safer bike infrastructure.

To help support more equitable access to helmets, the King County Council allocated $221,000 in the supplemental budget passed in November 2021 to support Public Health’s work distributing free helmets to those who may have trouble accessing them and promoting bike safety.

“As a cyclist, I know the many health, social and environmental benefits of biking. As a former ER doctor who has treated people with preventable head injuries, I also know the importance of wearing a bike helmet. And as Health Officer, I appreciate that community partners have highlighted the negative impacts of discriminatory enforcement of the helmet law. The bottom line is that Public Health continues to strongly recommend and encourage helmet use, especially by children.”

Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County

During testimony to the Board of Health in June 2021, a Real Change newspaper vendor who lives homeless reported having been stopped by police twice for not wearing a helmet while biking: “I don’t think it has to do with protection or anything else, it’s just total harassment. …I don’t see that this is really fair to the entire population. I don’t see why some can ride without helmets and others get stopped and harassed.”

“There is no question that bike helmets are a vital part of protecting the public’s health. I’m particularly grateful to King County Council for dedicating funds to support our work to expand bike helmet usage and bike safety,” “When we declared racism a public health crisis, we committed to working closely with BIPOC communities to promote public policies and practices that ensure better health and safety for all without doing harm to Black and Brown people. The recent action from the Board of Health removes a policy that has resulted in racist enforcement, while re-emphasizing the importance of wearing a bike helmet coupled with County resources to make bike safety more accessible for all.”

Dennis Worsham, Interim Director for Public Health – Seattle & King County

Free bike helmet resources

Wearing a properly fitted helmet while riding a bike is vital to protecting against potential head injuries. Public Health and the Board of Health strongly encourage everyone to wear a helmet while riding a bike. Many programs and organizations in King County provide free or reduced-cost bike helmets, and King County Council has allocated additional funds to support expanded access to low and no-cost bike helmets.

Check out our list of where to find free and low-cost helmets in King County. Learn more about proper bike helmet fit and other bike safety resources on our bicycle safety webpage.

Originally published February 17, 2022.